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Reporters Without Borders’ freedom of expression petition flops in France

Jack Guez, AFP | The cover of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo

In the wake of the deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris on Jan. 7, Reporters Without Borders called on France’s religious leaders to sign a “Declaration on Freedom of Expression”. Three months later, it looks like the petition is a flop.

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The campaign was first announced by Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) Secretary-General Christophe Deloire at a unity march held in Paris on January 11 in response to the massacre at the satirical weekly, as well as a deadly attack on a kosher grocery store in the east of the French capital.

The petition – which states that “everyone is free to express criticism, even irreverent criticism, of any system of political, philosophical or religious thought” – was officially launched in early February with the help of Jean-Louis Bianco, president of the Observatory of Secularism, a government organisation that focuses on protecting secularism in France.

The hope was to garner the signatures of as many religious leaders in France as possible ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3. But with just days to go before the symbolic deadline, only 30 people have signed the petition so far.

Among the first to back RSF’s “Declaration on Freedom of Expression” were Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, François Clavairoly, president of France’s Protestant Federation and Marie-Stella Boussemart, president of France’s Buddhist Union. The president of the Bishops’ Conference of France and archbishop of Marseille, Georges Pontier, however, sent a letter discouraging other members of the Catholic Church from signing the document.

The petition’s 27 other signatories include 10 Muslim, eight Protestant, six Jewish and two Catholic leaders (who defied Church hierarchy in doing so), as well as a prison/hospital chaplain.

The number is disappointing, especially considering that Deloire estimated in February that there are around 10,000 religious leaders in France.

“It’s true that it’s been complicated to get signatures,” Deloire told FRANCE 24. “But it also proves that it’s a real issue. The distinction between attacks targeting people and criticism of belief systems is apparently not clear to everyone.”

‘The situation remains relatively unchanged’

Despite underwhelming support for the petition, Deloire still believes that it can serve as a “clear reference as to what is admissible regarding freedom of expression” in France, pointing out that the document has stirred much debate over the issue nationwide.

“We got some signatures that were not at all a given in the beginning. We had to fight to obtain them, and there were a lot of articles discussing it, especially in [Roman Catholic daily] La Croix,” he said. “It’s a tool that we’re going to continue to use.”

But as World Press Freedom Day fast approaches, the “Declaration on Freedom of Expression” appears to have been all but forgotten. Even though RSF is organising a “freedom concert” at the historic Place de la République in Paris on May 3 to mark the day, the organisation made no mention of the petition on its Facebook page advertising the event.

“We feel that deep down there is a huge inertia,” Deloire said. “The situation has remained relatively unchanged since the end of January. We realised that there were still a number of regrettable obstacles.”

One such obstacle was the letter Pontier sent on February 3 discouraging other members of the Catholic Church from supporting the petition.

“This [petition] appears to suspect religions of lukewarm support, if not opposition, to freedom of expression,” Pontier said in an interview with La Croix explaining his position on the issue.

Pontier added that while the Catholic Church supports freedom of expression, he decided against signing the document after much personal reflection and discussion with other leaders within the religion.

Deloire said that his repeated attempts to meet with Pointier about the issue were unsuccessful.

“I asked to schedule a meeting with the president of the Bishops’ Conference on several occasions, but I didn’t achieve anything, despite the fact that he agrees in principle,” Deloire said.

“We have to pursue this issue,” he added. “A good number of religious leaders understand that there is no freedom of thought without freedom of expression.”

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