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Voltaire ‘tolerance’ book flies off shelves after Paris attacks

Didi, Twitter | A poster of French philosopher Voltaire in Paris in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks, January 2015

It’s not the throwback craze French booksellers might have have predicted two weeks ago, but philosopher Voltaire’s “Treatise on Tolerance” is enjoying a resurgence following the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks that shocked the country.


Voltaire’s "Treatise on Tolerance", originally published in 1763, is flying off bookstore shelves across the country, French media reported on Wednesday.

“Yes, something is definitely going on”, a spokesman for French publisher Gallimard told Le Figaro newspaper. “We have already sold 120,000 copies and we have decided to print a new edition”.

The book has also become an Amazon bestseller, ranking at number 17 on on Wednesday, potentially closing in on Michel Houellebecq's controversial new novel "Submission", which envisions a France ruled by a Muslim government.

Voltaire, who was born in Paris in 1694, won both fame and censure as a prolific writer and pamphleteer. He penned stinging critiques of the Catholic Church and poignantly defended freedom of religion and freedom of expression.

He was moved to write "Treatise on Tolerance" following the trial of Jean Calas, a Protestant executed on claims he murdered his own son to prevent his conversion to Catholicism, a charge that Calas denied.

In the book he chastised Catholic authorities in France for showing intolerance towards religious minorities, recalling the persecution faced by early Christian communities. He also argued personal beliefs by one group or another could not stand above the law of the land.

‘Avenging the prophet’

Voltaire is better known for his satirical work "Candide", and is often quoted as saying, “I disapprove of what you say but I'll defend to the death your right to say it”, even if the maxim was actually an interpretation by his British biographer. It seems he actually said something similar in a 1770 letter to Abbot le Riche: “I detest what you write but I would give my life so that you can continue to write it.”

France’s newfound interest in Voltaire’s "Tolerance" text comes in the wake of deadly attacks against satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo – which routinely pokes fun at religions – and against a kosher supermarket in Paris.

The Charlie Hebdo assailants murdered 12 people, including eight journalists, for publishing drawings depicting the Prophet Mohammed. The killers boasted that they had “avenged the prophet” as they fled the crime scene.

Mosques and Muslim prayer rooms across France have also become the target of attacks, with officials saying Tuesday that over 50 anti-Muslim acts have been recorded in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre on January 7.

I am Voltaire

Leading intellectuals have been quick to draw comparisons between Voltaire and Charlie Hebdo. La Société Voltaire, a group charged with safeguarding the philosopher’s work and legacy, said that in targeting the satirical magazine, attackers “also wanted to murder Voltaire”.

“Today, Voltaire would be Charlie,” the group said in a statement on its website this week. “Today, more than ever, Voltaire is a rallying symbol for all those who will not accept murderous religion… that a God serves to justify massacres”.

Jean-Marie Rouart, a writer and member of the prestigious Académie Française, also compared the philosopher to the magazine. "It's as if they wanted to kill Voltaire, a champion of the same struggle", he wrote in the glossy Paris Match. 

In any case, the "survivors" issue of Charlie Hebdo sold out its daily print run of 700,000 copies by 10 a.m. Wednesday (with an estimated 3-5 million copies in total to be distributed over the next two weeks), suggesting that the spirit of the slain cartoonists, like that of Voltaire, is very much alive and well.

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