Is there freedom of expression in France?

Is there freedom of expression in France?

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan thinks there isn’t. But Mr. Erdoğan is setting one wrong precedent after another – all of which may come back in the shape of immense humiliation for his country. 
In what the New York Times recently described as “an increasingly outsized national ego,” Mr. Erdoğan last week said, “Approximately 15 percent of the population in Algeria were subjected to a massacre by the French starting from 1945,” referring to French rule in Algeria that ended in 1962. “This is genocide.” 

But the Turks are so dizzy with a kind of “who-is-going-to-bash-Sarkozy-better-mania” that they forgot to question why Turkey waited about four decades “to call a cat a cat.” Or ask if this was a kind of gentlemen’s agreement in which genocide perpetrators remained silent over each other’s crimes until one of them broke the deal.

But let’s get back to Mr. Erdoğan’s claim that freedom of expression does not exist in France. Ironically, Mr. Erdoğan found that the poor French do not enjoy the civil rights and democratic culture other nations enjoy in the same week that one deputy prime minister, Beşir Atalay, pledged to make legislation so that non-violent expression of opinion would no longer result in prison sentences in Turkey. Turkey never ceases to run out of dark humor.

Somebody ought to remind Mr. Erdoğan that in “democratic” Turkey prosecutors recently indicted a book and its translator on the grounds of obscenity. The translator? Yes, for translating an obscene text which later would become a book. But we should be happy that the court-appointed interpreters for terror suspects are not yet being indicted for translating terrorists’ defenses in trials.

And in a recent and more striking show of democratic culture, a civil servant in Turkey was punished by his superiors for uploading a few cartoons critical of Mr. Erdoğan to his Facebook account. The French should be happy for not having a la Turca freedom of expression in their country.

The irony is clear. But self-contradiction may take several forms of script and visuals. In a recent article, prominent daily Hürriyet columnist Taha Akyol criticized President Nicolas Sarkozy for spearheading efforts to pass the genocide denial bill. “Sarkozy is a politically little man... lost under his presidential hat behind his wife,” Mr. Akyol wrote, supporting his argument by reprinting an old cover of The Economist. That cover depicts an invisible Mr. Sarkozy knocked into a cocked hat and following the steps of his wife, Carla Bruni. The cover page artwork ends with the title “The incredible shrinking président.”

That could be a real test to see whether France or Turkey lacks the universally accepted norms of freedom of expression and democratic culture. The bets are open! The game rules are simple. Anyone who claims that Turkey has better standards on civil rights will have to sign and publish in Turkey the Economist’s cover illustration equivalent for Mr. Erdoğan (does not matter whose steps Mr. Erdoğan should be following) and enjoy the liberty to mock the prime minister while escaping any prosecution. 
If, of course, the events do not turn up like this, the unlucky punters may have some time to rethink in their prison cells whether Turkey is a democratic country. But we know that the “undemocratic” president of the country where there is no freedom of expression did not sue The Economist for that illustration. Therefore, Mr. Akyol can always try himself to see how democratic our country is by publishing in his column the artwork I described. I would volunteer to have it designed for him if he made any indication that he would publish it.

There is common sense in arguing that the genocide denial bill may not be the best indication of freedom of expression in a democratic country. But to claim that in France there is no freedom of expression (while in Turkey there is) is another thing. Unless, of course, one’s understanding of freedoms is limited to genocide denial and sporting burqas.