Paris France – Some of France's leading politicians, including President Emmanuel Macron, have defended a teenager who received death threats last month after posting a live broadcast on social media attacking Islam. The publication has revived a national debate on blasphemy, which has been legal in France for centuries.
"The law is clear: we have the right to blaspheme, criticize, caricature religions," Macron said in an interview with Le Dauphine Libere on Wednesday. "The republican order is not a moral order … what is prohibited is to incite hatred and attack dignity."
The controversy began in late January when a 16-year-old girl, only known as Mila, started a live makeup tutorial on her Instagram account.
Relating a scenario that had developed on French television, Mila says that a commentator began attacking her during the broadcast. After answering that she was a lesbian and that "blacks and Arabs,quot; were not her type, Mila received a lot of insults, and a Muslim commentator called her "dirty lesbian." In response, Mila launched a verbal tirade against Islam, declaring "I hate religion. The Quran is a religion of hate."
The outbreak sparked a divisive debate on social networks with followers using the trend hashtag #JeSuisMila.
Whether he was looking for it or not, a pillar of support for Mila came from the figure of the extreme right-wing National Leal, Marine Le Pen, who said that Mila had "more courage than the entire political class in power during the past 30 years,quot;.
Bruno Retailleau, from Les Republicains, center right, praised the teenager for speaking out against "this political Islam that is trampling our values."
Critics, on the other hand, criticized Grenoble's teenager for her comments, and some on social media began sharing her personal information, including the name of her school. After receiving death threats, the prosecutor opened an investigation against Mila's attackers. She was placed under police protection and finally admitted to another school.
"In this debate, we have lost sight of the fact that Mila is a teenager. We owe her protection in school, in her daily life, in her movements," said Macron.
Other politicians have been more cautious with their words in the debate. Segolene Royal, a former candidate for the presidency of the socialist party, said she defended Mila's "total,quot; freedom to criticize religion, but also said the teenager could have shown more "respect, manners and knowledge."
The Minister of Justice of France, Nicole Belloubet, caused a stir after saying that Mila's comments were "clearly a violation of freedom of conscience." After receiving criticism from activists for freedom of expression, Belloubet apologized and said his statement was "awkward."
"It's not about freedom of expression,quot;
Abdallah Zekri, general delegate of the French Council for the Muslim faith (CFCM), described the threats against Mila as "erroneous," but also said he rejected the argument of those who cited freedom of expression as a reason to defend Mila.
"It's not about freedom of expression, it's about someone being vulgar and insulting," Zekri told Al Jazeera.
Zekri also criticized what he called the "hypocrisy,quot; of the French government in which he decided to defend: "I received 17 death threat letters in the last week … who denounces that?"
The "Mila Subject,quot; is not the first incident that raises debate about blasphemy laws in France. The country follows a strict form of secularism known as "secularism,quot;, and is also home to the largest Muslim community in Western Europe. The resulting friction has led to a series of incidents over the years, such as the 2007 legal case against satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo for publishing a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad considered offensive to many Muslims.
In their ruling, the judges sided with the magazine, citing French laws that protect the right to blasphemy.
When in 2015, two brothers attacked the newspaper's headquarters, killed 12 people and injured 11 others, they said it was an act of revenge for the cartoon.
Anastasia Colosimo, a political scientist, explains that French law protects those who criticize religion as a whole compared to criticizing individual believers.
"You can say, for example, that Christianity is horrible, but you cannot say that Christians are all horrible people, because people are being named, which is illegal," said Colosimo tol Al Jazeera.
Colosimo also expressed support for the current system.
"There are reasons for the state to protect any religion," he said.
"It makes sense to protect a religion when the legitimacy of political power comes from a religious authority as in ancient times, but not in a modern democracy."