Provocative Speech in French Law: A Closer Look at Charlie Hebdo

12 Pages Posted: 4 Aug 2023

See all articles by Asma Uddin

Asma Uddin

Columbus School of Law (Catholic University of America)

Date Written: Fall 2015


At 11:30 a.m. on January 7, 2015, brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi, masked, dressed in black, and armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, approached the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French magazine. They forced one of the magazine’s cartoonists to enter the code to the newsroom door. Upon entering the room, the men opened fire and killed the editor, Stephane Charbonnier, and four Charlie Hebdo cartoonists along with several others. The gunmen shouted, “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad” and “God is Great” in Arabic as they called out the names of the journalists. The gunmen escaped by car.

During the chase, Amedy Coulibaly, a friend of the two terrorists, killed a policewoman in Montrouge, and on January 9, took several people hostage at a kosher supermarket at Porte de Vincennes. He threatened to kill the hostages unless the Kouachi brothers were allowed to go free. At around 5:00 p.m. that day, the police stormed the supermarket and killed Coulibaly, while another operation launched at the same time killed the Kouachi brothers, who were hiding in a printing firm in Dammartin-en-Goele.

Both individuals and the French government responded zealously to the attack on Charlie Hebdo. Social media became saturated with the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie, or #IAmCharlie, as French citizens and individuals abroad rushed to show solidarity with the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo and the cause of freedom of speech. The French government commenced “aggressive enforcements” of Law No. 2014-1353 of November 13, 2014, an anti-terrorism law that was rarely used until the weeks prior to the attacks, against anyone who spoke out against the Charlie Hebdo cause. Among those prosecuted for their speech was Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, a French comedian, who was arrested for “defending terrorism” in a Facebook status that read, “Tonight, as far as I’m concerned, I feel like Charlie Coulibaly.” The statement is a combination of the slogan “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) and “Amedy Coulibaly,” the name of the gunman who terrorized the kosher supermarket, and appears to imply sympathy with the terrorists. He was fined $37,000.

Various commentators and scholars have pointed out the double standard in the French government’s treatment of speech, especially in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The New Yorker noted that “[t]he juxtaposition of . . . the celebration of a magazine that routinely publishes cartoons considered blasphemous and offensive by many of the world’s Muslims and the muscular prosecution of a relentlessly provocative black comedian” made the hypocrisy glaringly obvious. Similarly, Jonathan Turley reflected in the Washington Post about the spontaneous rally in support of Charlie Hebdo after the attacks: “[O]ne could fairly ask what they were rallying around. The greatest threat to liberty in France has come not from the terrorists who committed such horrific acts this past week but from the French themselves, who have been leading the Western world in a crackdown on free speech.”

Indeed, the French government has a history of using its speech laws to curtail the speech of journalists, comedians, celebrities, and ordinary citizens alike. That same tendency of restricting speech came into play in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, when the French government simultaneously punished critics for their speech and glorified Charlie Hebdo as a symbol of freedom of speech.

At the core of the French double standard is its inconsistent distinction between protection and punishment of provocative speech. In Part I, this paper will look briefly at how international law treats provocation, in particular, Articles 19–20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Then, Part II will look at the ways French speech law embodies the aforementioned double standard because of its failure to adopt the international standard on provocation. The paper will conclude by advocating for a more uniform, more protective approach to speech—one that will bring French law into conformity with international law.

Suggested Citation

Uddin, Asma, Provocative Speech in French Law: A Closer Look at Charlie Hebdo (Fall 2015). Florida International University Law Review, Symposium, 2015, Available at SSRN:

Asma Uddin (Contact Author)

Columbus School of Law (Catholic University of America) ( email )

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