Limits to expression on religion in France

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Janssen, E. (2009)

During the last decade conflicts about expression on religion have increased globally. Generally, these conflicts are regarded as a conflict between freedom of speech and freedom of thought, conscience and religion. In France there are many active religious interest groups that aim to protect a certain religion in society. They often initiate judicial proceedings seeking to prohibit certain kinds of speech on their religion. This practice has resulted in a rich case law on the limits of expression on religion in films, film posters, advertising, satirical cartoons and literature. In France special emphasis is placed on the neutrality of the state and the public sphere. The strict separation of the state and the church, la laïcité, originates in La loi de 1905. Accordingly, in cases concerning expression on religion the French judge clearly distinguishes different degrees of the public nature of speech. However, even for French judges it is difficult to remain neutral. In past case law, the judiciary seems to have attempted a reintroduction of the offence of blasphemy and to have taken into account the point of view of the Catholic Church for the assessment of the insulting character of speech. What is more, in the famous Giniewski case the French judge protected catholic citizens that felt offended by certain speech, but the European Court of Human Rights corrected France and gave priority to a free historical debate. In its recent case law the European Court of Human Rights increasingly discerns unprotected attacks on a religion from protected critique on religious dogmas and institutions. Recent French case law, including the national affair of the Danish cartoons ‘Charlie Hebdo’, in which the judge allowed critical speech on religion as part of political and public debate, is in line with this European development.
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