Since an attack on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo two weeks ago, the French have been in the forefront of a discussion of free speech.
This week, Fox News screened several segments on supposed“no-go zones” in Europe, including Birmingham, England. In one on France, a map showed a selection of Paris neighborhoods, including bohemian Belleville and busy shopping area Magenta, which a commentator compared to Iraq and Afghanistan. Fox later apologized—five times. But the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, said that her city had been “insulted” and insisted that the French capital would sue Fox News.
It is a lawsuit some judge unlikely to happen, because “erroneous statement is inevitable in free debate” and “must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the breathing space that they need to survive.” The Fox News map was silly and inaccurate. But in threatening legal action against the channel, Hidalgo allowed herself to blunder headlong into a blind spot. The current tension in France, after all, was precipitated by an insistence on the right to offend.
On Wednesday morning, Hidalgo was still threatening to sue and tweeting links to the stories. One of her re-tweets stated: “Freedom of the press is the essence of democracy:”
Others in France responded to Fox and the threatened suit in the vein of Charlie Hebdo—with satire. Interviewers from the TV comedy Le Petit Journal asked three local black teenagers how they find Père Lachaise, one of the no-go areas depicted by Fox. “It’s a pleasant place to live,” one said. “I’ve always lived here without a problem.”
Many Parisians are also asked whether they would compare their city with Iraq or Afghanistan, to laughter from the French audience. One might wonder whether residents of those countries would find it funny to have their homelands thus ridiculed.
The cartoonists who were killed were targeted because they depicted the prophet Mohammed. Then, as the city mourned, a comedian was arrested after saying he identified with one of the killers. In Paris, wounded though it is, the idea will dawn that if the right to offend is sacrosanct for the French, then media outlets across the world will have to be treated the same.