In the 1960s, Brigitte Bardot was France’s national icon, a pouty-lipped poster girl for the glories of her home country. So it is a sign of how radically times have changed that yesterday’s silver-screen darling is today’s enemy of the people.
Bardot’s “crimes,” such as they are, are straightforward: She has committed the sin of speaking frankly and unapologetically about her country’s hostile Muslim immigrant population and – what is evidently worse – questioning the compatibility of some Muslim religious practices with Western society. Common sense, one might think, or least subjects fit for fruitful debate.
Not in modern France. Last week, the erstwhile cinema siren went on trial on the charge of inciting “racial hatred against Muslims.” If convicted, she could face a two-month suspended prison sentence and nearly $24,000 in fines.
The basis for the charge is utterly bogus. It stems from a letter that Bardot wrote to President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2006, in which she complained about the practices of Islamic immigrants. In particular, Bardot was put off by the ritual of Eid al-Adha, a Muslim feast in which sheep and goats are slaughtered by having their throats slit. A longtime animal-rights activist, Bardot found the practice abominable.
Her mistake was in thinking that she had the freedom to say so. But as France struggles to control a large (Muslims make up nearly ten percent of the country) and increasingly radicalized Muslim population critics of Islamism are finding themselves more actively persecuted by national authorities than the Islamists themselves.
Bardot is a case in point. Her latest legal woes may seem troubling, but they are only the latest battle in a larger war waged by Islamic radicals and their allies to suppress all criticism of Islam and its more militant and anti-Western incarnations. It speaks to the success of these state-backed exercises in intimidation that Bardot has been convicted for “inciting racial hatred” on four separate occasions.
Bardot’s trials, literal and figurative, at the hands of the Fifth Republic’s multicultural enforcers date back to the early 1990s, when she first spoke out against the slaughtering of animals for religious purposes. Although Bardot directed her attacks against Muslims and Jews, it was her criticism of the former that got her branded as a racist. By 1997, Bardot stood convicted on the charge of “inciting racial hatred” after suggesting in the French daily Le Figaro that France was beset by a “foreign over-population,” including with Muslim immigrants.
It was unclear, then as now, how criticism of a non-racial group, in this case Muslims, could be considered “racist.” Nor was it apparent why an issue as fundamental to the welfare of a nation as immigration was suddenly to be deemed off-limits for discussion. But the Orwellian subtext of the case was impossible to miss: There were some things that French citizens simply were not allowed to discuss.
Bardot pointedly ignored the lesson. The following year, she likened the slaughter of animals in Islamic rituals to the throat-slitting favored by Islamic fundamentalists in North Africa, implying that the connection was not coincidental. It was a provocative point, to be sure, but by no means an unreasonable one. Where the world’s leading religions have shed their cruelest tendencies, Islam as practiced in much of the world – one need only recall the gruesome decapitation murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl – retains its more savage elements.
In any case, criticizing religious practices would seem to be entirely consistent with European free-speech statutes, especially in anticlerical France. And, indeed, a lower court initially found Bardot’s comments to be protected by free-speech laws. That was too much for an appeals court, however, and before long it reversed the decision and slapped Bardot with a fine. Free speech was a fine thing, apparently, so long as it didn’t offend Muslims.
It would not be the last time that Bardot incurred the wrath of French censors. In 2000, she was again convicted of “racist” thought crimes for writing what she called an “Open Letter to My Lost France,” in which she raised concerns about Muslim immigration. As on past occasions, the merits of her concerns were not specifically examined, their focus on Muslims being deemed sufficient proof their unacceptability for public discussion – this even as French banlieues, home to unassimilated Muslim immigrants, seethed with the violent hatred that would erupt in riots across France in 2005.
Bardot was undaunted. In 2003, she again ran afoul of “anti-racism laws” when she published A Cry in the Silence, a book decrying what she called “the Islamisation of France,” and pointing out the obvious ties between the September 11 attacks and Islamic extremism. In that book, Bardot also cautioned against the dangers of rubbishing Western freedoms to accommodate political sensitivities. “For 20 years we have submitted to a dangerous and uncontrolled underground infiltration,” she wrote. “Not only does it fail to give way to our laws and customs. Quite the contrary, as time goes by it tries to impose its own laws on us.” As if to demonstrate her point, French authorities proceeded to fine her 5,000 euros for offending Muslims. (Revealingly, Bardot’s views proved far more popular among the French public, which turned A Cry of Silence into a bestseller.)
To understand just how sinister are the attacks on Bardot it is useful to consider the group that repeatedly has brought suit against her, the Movement Against Racism And For Friendship Between Peoples (MRAP). Inaccurately called a human-rights group, the MRAP is in fact an aggressive silencer of free-speech.
Its most famous contribution to French political life was to thwart the sale of the late Oriana Fallaci’s 2002 book, Anger and Pride, on the grounds that it supposedly incited racial hatred against Muslims. Similarly, when Bardot published A Cry in the Silence in 2003, the MRAP pronounced it “unacceptable,” thus appointing itself the arbiter of what French citizens should and should not be allowed to read.
But of course groups like the MRAP would be inconsequential were it not for the dangerous proclivity of the French legal establishment for treating their fictitious allegations of racism with unmerited seriousness. In this context, it was illuminating when a French prosecutor last week called for unusually stiff penalties against Bardot in the current case against the actress because she was a “bit tired of trying Madame Bardot.” How much easier it would be for that civil servant and countless others like her if nuisances like Bardot would simply surrender their right to speak freely.
Bardot may not be the most artful of social commentators, but then she doesn’t need to be. Nothing demonstrates the prescience of her warnings – not least her warning about the dangers of sacrificing Western liberties to accommodate the extreme demands of hostile minority groups – so much as the ongoing efforts of the French state to silence the woman it once hailed as an idol.