France, know thyself


To paraphrase PG Wodehouse, it’s never difficult to distinguish between a Frenchman with a grievance, and a ray of sunshine. Admirable though the protest for freedom of expression is in France, following recent events, there is a tinge of hypocrisy in all this, both in recent times and historically.

We need not worry too much on behalf of the unappealing Front National, that Charlie Hebdo campaigned to have them banned in 1996, but the fact is, they did. Voltaire might have baulked at that one. Similarly, there is no reason other than prissy lefty sensibilities to have failed to invite the current (and widely supported) Front National from the big rally for unity. It just makes it about 75% unity. Even at a time of great seriousness, calling for greatness of spirit, these morons get all huffy and party political. None of this is to support the Front National, who are a legal organisation, just to note the inherent divisiveness, precisely the wrong message.

Not particularly my business , I suppose, much as I like France.

However, let us go back, not that long ago, to examine the living history of this bastion of free expression and tolerance. Look at this picture:

The monks being thrown out of La Grande Chartreuse in 1903, by the government
The monks being thrown out of La Grande Chartreuse in 1903, by the government

Nothing wrong with separating Church and state – in fact the two are usually inimically opposed on numerous issues – as the French law of 1905 put on the statute books, but in fact it went a lot further than that. The monks only returned in 1940, to their rightful home. The Jesuits were also kicked out of any teaching role, and in shades of Henry VIII, had much of their property ‘confiscated’ by the state. Whatever your view of allegedly subversive Jesuits – a very intelligent and formidable group  – the blameless Carthusians were outrageously treated.

Bizarrely, these church groups had committed no crimes, this was just state approved anticlericalism, a recurring feature of French history, most famously the era of ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’ in 1789. Only as far back as 1871, the short lived Communard revolt was busy executing Jesuits for being Jesuits. These were clergy, we’re not talking homecoming jihadis here.

A number of writers**  have in the past few days***  attempted the delicate task of unpicking support for the principles of freedom of expression from uncritical support for the French state, and for the genuinely offensive – to everybody, the Muslims got off lightly – and even worse, genuinely unfunny Charlie Hebdo.  Stephen Glover did a good job:

Whether in the case of Islam or Christianity — and the magazine sometimes also extends its animus towards the Jewish faith — the purpose is to shock and dishearten those of religious persuasion. There is no pity or respect or kindness. Charlie Hebdo hates all religion, and mocks all its adherents. I can only imagine how ordinary Muslims feel when they see everything that they hold most sacred being held up for ridicule. As someone who calls himself a Christian, I can sense some of the pain and outrage that Christians much more devout and holy than me must experience when they see or read about these appalling images, which are intended to cause pain.

Here, of course, we come to a parting of the ways. Christians and, I believe, most Muslims, recognise that as we live in a free society we are required to put up with even the most hurtful insults to our faith. The Kouachi brothers (who committed the Paris murders) and their deluded supporters think otherwise, and many innocent people, including the journalists of Charlie Hebdo, have paid a terrible price. It’s obviously insane and immoral to kill someone because one is offended by an image and I abhor what happened in Paris in the name of Islam. But it’s not insane or immoral to be offended by an image whose purpose is to vilify our beliefs and make us unhappy. It’s simply natural and human…

….The militantly atheistical Charlie Hebdo cannot grasp this simple truth. Convinced that all religion is a form of deviance, it lacks the imagination or human sympathy to understand the value of the sacred for religious people, of whom there are thousands of millions on this earth. Far from being sophisticated or enlightened, in some respects the magazine resembles a narrow and monomaniacal sect that actually works against the precepts of freedom. Ironically, in this it is more similar to its blinkered Islamist opponents than it could ever dream — though, of course, without the violence.

As the Pope said, in a remark better understood abroad than in the UK (and not speaking ex cathedra): ‘If you insult my mother you can expect a punch.’

But France specifically, and its ‘tradition’ of being obnoxious to sacred values is in a mess on this stuff. It always has been. I am indebted to the great (and very witty) @BruvverEccles, for highlighting GK Chesterton’s musings from The Ball and the Cross, in one of his more pointed blog posts:

“Yes, France!” said Turnbull, and all the rhetorical part of him came to the top, his face growing as red as his hair. “France, that has always been in rebellion for liberty and reason. France, that has always assailed superstition with the club of Rabelais or the rapier of Voltaire. France, at whose first council table sits the sublime figure of Julian the Apostate. France, where a man said only the other day those splendid unanswerable words”—with a superb gesture—”‘we have extinguished in heaven those lights that men shall never light again.'”
“No,” said MacIan, in a voice that shook with a controlled passion. “But France, which was taught by St. Bernard and led to war by Joan of Arc. France that made the crusades. France that saved the Church and scattered the heresies by the mouths of Bossuet and Massillon. France, which shows today the conquering march of Catholicism, as brain after brain surrenders to it, Brunetière, Coppée, Hauptmann, Barrès, Bourget, Lemaître.”
“France!” asserted Turnbull with a sort of rollicking self-exaggeration, very unusual with him, “France, which is one torrent of splendid scepticism from Abelard to Anatole France.”
“France,” said MacIan, “which is one cataract of clear faith from St. Louis to Our Lady of Lourdes.”

...but I was only praying
…but I was only praying

** This, from Rex Murphy, is a brilliant polemic:

Let’s put it plainly: The solidarity would have been a lot more impressive, more persuasive, some time before this week’s mass butchery….All of which makes this hashtag war, all the We are Charlie Hebdo manifestations, so very, very hollow. If we will not speak for free speech when it is shut down by special interests, protestors of the politically correct, on campuses and in newspapers, we manifest that we are not serious about free speech. There is no “we” after the killings. There are very few worthy of that claim … and, alas, under the shout of allahu akbar, 12 of them are now quite dead.

*** and Christopher Booker, who actually does know his satire


2 thoughts on “France, know thyself

  1. I don’t think that the cartoonist’s intentions were to offend or hurt devout christians/muslims/other religious groups. Far from it, the purpose of it is to surely make people like thenselves laugh. I find jokes about rape offensive and jokes about women offensive but people make them to make misogynist pricks laugh. Your own comedy heroes are deeply rude and offensive but I don’t believe that they wish to hurt and offend the people they take the piss out of.

  2. Fair comment, the Hebdo stuff isn’t to my taste, but so what? My real point is that the free speech issues have been routinely ignored by the French nation and CH, when it suited them. It’s either truly free – with the consequences of that – or it’s not

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