It's not a question of what can or cannot be said, but who gets to decide
We should be clear about one thing: what happened in Nice today was not about free speech. When the killer entered the Notre Dame basilica this morning and beheaded a 70 year old woman, slit the throat of its sacristan and stabbed to death a young mother at prayer, he had no idea whatsoever what their views were on secularism or freedom of expression.
The church was not a symbol of the French state, nor of its Laïcité. They were not murdered because they had mocked Islam, or even Erdogan, but because they were French and because they were Christians. That was enough for him to see them as an enemy to be destroyed, in their own country, in the house of God.
To frame the events in France as an abstract debate over free speech is thus to avoid the central issue: it is a question of sovereignty. The essential problem Macron is grappling with is not the content of what can or cannot be said in France, but who gets to decide. The question, now, is whether the French state holds the monopoly of force, or whether any young radical can pick up a knife and declare his beliefs sovereign over the laws of France, and the lives of his countrymen.
For five years, the French army has been deployed on the country’s streets to protect its own people from their fellow citizens, and over the past two weeks it has become clear that this is not enough. There is no room for compromise in this scenario, a state of exception outside the ordinary bounds of politics: Either the state is sovereign, or it is not. The dividing lines, too, have now been drawn up clearly: between friend and enemy, citizen and terrorist.
Those who would challenge the state’s authority by murdering their fellow citizens cannot appeal to their own wounded feelings as just cause; those providing cover for them, like the American journalists churning out equivocating editorials on their behalf, are not liberal humanitarians but enablers of terrorism, however much they invoke the self-pitying language of identity politics.
There is, simply, no means of coexistence with those who wish to destroy you. In Houllebecq’s 2015 novel Submission, the narrator reserves his ire for the commentators who averted their gaze from the horrors on the horizon. He wrote:
“All the same,” the narrator realises, “the widening gap, now a chasm, between the people and those who claimed to speak for them, the politicians and journalists, would necessarily lead to something chaotic, violent and unpredictable.” It is Macron’s challenge now to bridge that gap, before the escalation of Islamist terrorism, fuelled by Turkish government rhetoric, makes the French state powerless to assert its authority.
The endless, tiresome debate over free speech may pad out word counts for Anglo-Saxon columnists but what is at stake here is the integrity, and ultimately the survival of the French Republic itself.