Charlie Hebdo and Macron show uncompromising liberalism is lifeblood of France's democracy

Abhijit Majumder
·4 min read

The two most influential concepts in the modern West, liberalism and nationalism, crystallised from the French Revolution of 1789 and are now at each other's throats across the world. There is, however, one place where they are joined at the hip: France.

That is because uncompromising liberalism had been tattooed into the DNA of the French nation after the revolution and with the coming of Napoleon Bonaparte.

While France finally settled for 'liberty, equality and fraternity' as its motto, it had several slogans going into the revolution. Some had in them 'unity', some 'fraternity', some 'justice' and some 'reason'. But there was one word constant and at the forefront of every revolutionary, nationalistic slogan: 'Liberty'.

The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, set by the Constituent Assembly of 1789, defines 'liberty' as: "Liberty consists of being able to do anything that does not harm others: Thus, the exercise of the natural rights of every man or woman has no bounds other than those that guarantee other members of society the enjoyment of these same rights."

So, while liberal political theorists from Friedrich Hayek to Yael Tamir argue about the extent the two can mix, French nationalism itself is defined by liberalism. This French liberalism does not sleep with illiberal ideologies for political convenience or coalitions.

Any attack on this liberalism €" with its inalienable right to offend €" unites the French of diverse ideologies into fierce and obstinate resistance.

Which is why in the face of repeated Islamic terror attacks and mass murders to avenge the Charlie Hebdo magazine publishing Prophet Mohammed's caricatures, the magazine has not bent, the public has redoubled its commitment to free speech, and the French president has declared war on Islamic extremism.

After Charlie Hebdo published caricatures of the prophet in 2011, its offices were firebombed. It responded by publishing a cartoon of Islamic Prophet on the cover, after which France had to shut down embassies and schools in more than 20 countries. But it did not shut Charlie Hebdo down.

On 7 January, 2015, Muslim brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi stormed into the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris and shoot down 12 staffers and injured 11 others. Several other attacks followed in other parts of France.

Exactly a week later, Charlie Hebdo resurrected itself from the fresh graves, printing an edition of 7.95 million copies in six languages with a cover cartoon of Mohammed holding a placard which read 'Je Suis Charlie' or 'I am Charlie'.

Then on October 16, 2020, a Muslim teenager in France beheaded teacher Samuel Paty for showing the Mohammed cartoons, ironically in a freedom of expression lecture.

Turkey's president Tayyip Erdogan attacked his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron after the latter declared a crackdown on Islamic extremism. On cue, Charlie Hebdo has published a bawdy toon of Erdogan frolicking with a burqa-clad woman and mouthing an exclamation mentioning the prophet.

The Islamic world, predictably, has erupted. It is spray-bulleting Macron with abuses, unmindful of how it treats women, minorities, homosexuals and even those whom it deems 'not Muslim enough'.

France's fierce liberalism has stitched up the tongues of one large vocal group: The "pseudo liberals". Those who condemn every other faith but acquiesce to the unending bloodshed and bigotry in the name of Islam daily worldwide just to keep membership of their elitist circles and enjoy patronage.

Among nations, India has surprisingly climbed down from its customary perch on the fence. It came out with a strong statement on Wednesday condemning the abusive language hurled at Macron and the gruesome beheading of the teacher.

It is a good beginning. While this civilisation's multiculturalism is set in a very different mould, India and France are two nations that uphold the highest liberal values in their own style.

In a world of fake liberals and extremists who hide behind them, these two democracies must demonstrate that uncompromising liberalism and protecting those values is the lifeblood of our nationalism.

Views expressed are personal

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