I have been a long critic of the criminalization of speech in Europe and particularly in France. An ever-expanding range of speech is being subject to charges in France as racially or culturally or religiously insensitive. The latest such example is the $34,000 fine imposed on former far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen for calling the Nazi gas chambers a “detail” of World War Two. I can certainly understand the anger over the comment and it may indeed reflect a questioning of the holocaust. However, it is also free speech that should be protected in France and other countries.
We have previously discussed the alarming rollback on free speech rights in the West, particularly in France (here and here and here and here and here and here) and England ( here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here). Much of this trend is tied to the expansion of hate speech and non-discrimination laws.
Some countries have specifically sought to criminalize certain opinions about history, particularly over genocide. Poland recently passed such a law. Russia moved in 2015 to criminalize denial of genocide under the same misguided approach. I previously wrote about a similar law passed in France as not just a denial of free speech but academic freedom. The law was later struck down. The Russians moved just weeks after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Switzerland also violation freedom of speech for its criminalization of the denial of the killings of Armenians as genocide. The European Court of Human Rights found that Switzerland violated a Turkish politician’s right to freedom of speech by convicting Dogu Perincek for denying that the 1915 Armenian killings in the Ottoman empire constituted a genocide: “It was undisputed that Perincek’s conviction and punishment, together with the order to pay compensation to the Switzerland-Armenia Association, had constituted an interference with the exercise of his right to freedom of expression.”
In this latest case, Le Pen was convicted of contesting crimes against humanity. He was previously convicted of the same charge in 2012 after saying France’s Nazi occupation had been “not particularly inhumane.” In 2014 he said that the Ebola virus could solve Europe’s “immigration problem.” I find all of these statements to be horrific and disturbing but that is not the point. They happen to be Le Pen’s view of history. He is wrong. However, I would prefer to debate and denounce him over such differences, not prosecute him.
Le Pen is so extreme that his own daughter, Marine, expelled him from their party. Notably, in 2015, Marine Le Pen was acquitted of inciting hatred after comparing French Muslims to the Nazis who occupied France during the war. Regardless of the outcome, these prosecutions create a chilling effect on speech and seek to coerce people into adopting the majoritarian view of policies or history. It is not about Le Pen over his hateful views. It is free speech as a defining principle of Western Civilization.