[dropcap]F[/dropcap]rench President François Hollande used an International Holocaust Memorial Day speech to confirm that his government plans to tighten its control over what people are allowed to say online.
The planned crackdown raises concern that French authorities will use their powers to further censor speech critical of Israel under the guise of combating anti-Semitism.
“Anti-Semitism has changed its face, but has not lost its age-old roots,” Hollande said at a Paris commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the Soviet Army’s liberation of Auschwitz.
Today, he said, “it is also nourished by hatred of Israel” and “imports the conflicts of the Middle East.”
This conflation of anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel presages even harsher efforts in France to suppress the Palestine solidarity movement.
Hollande’s speech comes in the wake of a broad crackdown in France that has seen dozens of people sentenced to prison for things they have said or written since three French gunmen murdered 17 people earlier this month in attacks on the offices of the racist magazine Charlie Hebdo, on a Jewish supermarket and on police.
Rebuke to Israel
Hollande also indirectly rebuked Israel for its efforts to precipitate the transfer of France’s Jewish population, telling French Jews, “your place is here, in your home. Our country would no longer be France if we had to live without you.”
In comments likely to anger Israeli officials hoping to exploit the recent attacks in France to encourage Jewish departures, Hollande said: “If terrorism succeeds in driving you from the land of France, from the French language, from French culture, from the French republic which emancipated the Jews, then terrorism would have achieved its goal.”
(See a full video of Hollande’s speech in French)
Controlling free speech
Hollande confirmed that under his government’s plans, “suppression of racist and anti-Semitic speech” would be moved from the civil press law to the criminal law and that racist or anti-Semitic motives would be treated as aggravating factors in crimes.
He said that Internet companies and social media websites would be “placed before their responsibilities” and punished if they failed to meet them.
Hollande’s announcement confirms plans already laid out by officials after the Charlie Hebdo attack that would see tighter legal controls on online speech, including giving ministers the power to block websites.
Interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve also announced that “surveillance of the Internet, particularly social networks, would be entrusted” to France’s internal and overseas intelligence and spying agencies.
Support from France’s Israel lobby
Roger Cuckierman, president of CRIF, France’s main umbrella organization for Jewish communal groups, met with top government officials earlier this month to push for tighter controls on the Internet and stiffer sentences for illegal speech.
CRIF, which is also France’s most prominent Israel advocacy group, has demandedprecisely the measures that have been announced – moving racist and anti-semitic speech to a more serious category of crime, and laws regulating speech on Twitter, Facebook, Google and YouTube “to effectively combat calls for terrorism and anti-Semitic words.”
While CRIF claims that its efforts are aimed at combating bigotry and racism, the group is apparently highly tolerant of violent racism as long as that hatred is directed against Palestinians, Arabs or Muslims.
CRIF’s Cuckierman, for instance, has welcomed the extreme anti-Palestinian Israeli minister Naftali Benett, whose party denies the right to self-determination and even the existence of a Palestinian people, and who has boasted “I have killed lots of Arabs in my life – and there is no problem with that.”
Another senior member of Bennett’s party, lawmaker Ayelet Shaked, notoriously called for genocide of the Palestinians, including exterminating Palestinian mothers because they give birth to “little snakes.” None of this appears to have bothered CRIF.
Conflating anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel
People may differ sharply on whether laws regulating what people can say are a good idea, but everyone ought to agree that bigotry because of religion, ethnicity, race or other characteristics is wrong.
The problem is that Israel and its advocates have tried for years to blur the line between anti-Semitism – bigotry against Jews because they are Jews – on the one hand, and, on the other, criticism of Israel’s colonial occupation, massacres and violence against Palestinians.
This Europe-wide campaign scored a recent success in the UK, where a government policy document declared that a boycott of Israeli academic institutions complicit in the oppression of Palestinians was “anti-Jewish.”
The goal has been to make criticism of Israel or the Zionist ideology that motivates its colonization of Palestinian land taboo by associating advocacy for Palestinian rights with socially unacceptable or illegal forms of bigotry.
Tightening control of Palestine advocacy
In the French internet and technology publication Numerama, columnist Guillaume Champeau warned that officials would soon likely be able to block websites without any judicial oversight, targeting those that are critical of Israel:
“We know that Prime Minister Manuel Valls has a particularly broad view of what constitutes anti-Semitism,” Champeau writes, “because he includes not only hatred toward Jews … but also the most forceful and systematic speech against the internal and external policies of Israel and against so-called ‘Zionists’ who support them.”
Champeau points to a speech made by France’s hardline prime minister last March at a CRIF conference on fighting anti-Semitism.
“This anti-Semitism, and this is what’s new, is fed by hatred of Israel,” Valls said. “It is fed by anti-Zionism. Because anti-Zionism is an open door for anti-Semitism. Because calling into question the State of Israel … based on anti-Zionism, is the anti-Semitism of today.”
Champeau asserts that the difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is “not always clear,” but “the distinction remains real and absolutely necessary in a democracy,” and making it “cannot be trusted to the state.”
Palestinians have always insisted that their struggle is not directed against Jews. In 2012, for instance, dozens of well-known Palestinian activists and intellectuals signed a letter reaffirming “a key principle of our movement for freedom, justice, and equality: The struggle for our inalienable rights is one opposed to all forms of racism and bigotry, including, but not limited to, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, Zionism, and other forms of bigotry directed at anyone, and in particular people of color and indigenous peoples everywhere.”
The letter also opposed “the cynical and baseless use of the term anti-Semitism as a tool for stifling criticism of Israel or opposition to Zionism.”
France already has a history of state repression of advocacy for Palestinian rights, including trials of activists calling for the boycott of the Israeli state and firms and institutions complicit in its human rights violations, and a ban on demonstrations against Israel’s assault on Gaza last summer.
Concerned about the broader implications of the government’s measures, Amnesty International has already launched a petition urging Hollande to protect freedom of expression.
Amid the tightening crackdown, life is about to get harder for supporters of Palestinian rights in France.