Echoing the terrorist attack in January, the magazine History in its April issue devotes a large dossier devoted to fights for a free press, from Voltaire to "Charlie Hebdo".: From enlightenment fighters to blasphemy rights under the Third Republic, including independence and satirism, a French exception, this fight is also that of freedom of conscience and expression.
Freedom of expression was first of all a demand, a fight against censorship and despotism. No wonder that it was carried, as early as the sixteenth century, by the loose sheets of reformers facing repression. Across the Channel, John Milton, in his Areopagirtca (1644), fiercely protested against parliamentary censorship. It was Jefferson's favorite book. If it was ignored for a long time in France, the plea of Pierre Bayle for "a universal civil tolerance" was taken up by Voltaire: freedom of expression is only valid if it is extended to those whose ideas we detest. This tradition inspired the battles of the nineteenth century in France.
Censorship is unbearable for those who have developed a taste for saying everything. The immense founding debate of 1881, in France, in the Chamber of Deputies, got to the bottom of things: a law on press freedom emerged, which, in its scope, had little to do with it. to be envied by the 1st Amendment of the American Constitution. Because the Republic was built in the fight against dogmatic Catholicism, the discussion focused a lot on the criminalization of blasphemy, the ultimate refuge from the taboo. We are the heirs to this debate, the philosophical intensity of which surprises us.
Freedom of expression is a combat value. "God will defend himself well", queried Georges Clemenceau who, in the same spirit, authorized the outrage of the republic, capable, he was sure, of defending itself too. Values are nothing if they cannot withstand free examination, offense, even insult. However, this presupposes a few rules. They were clarified in France by a handful of laws and immense jurisprudence: that we do not attack people, that we only attack ideas, with arguments that do not threaten physical integrity. adversaries. The caricature, often unfair, sometimes crude, possibly cruel, is its most devious weapon. But if it hurts, it doesn't kill.
Fight for a free press, from Voltaire to Charlie. Magazine L'Histoire, April 2015. On newsstands and by subscription.