Today my giveaway was Le Diable et le Bon Dieu (The Devil and the Good Lord), a play by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. I’ve had the book since high school, when I was studying French language and literature. My French was relatively good back then since we had lived for 4 years in Quebec and had to absorb the language quickly. At high school in England at the age 17 or 18, I was starting to enjoy (is that the right word?) the works of Camus and Sartre. I remember reading Les Mains Sales (Dirty Hands) and Le Mur (The Wall). They were a bit dark but they did make me think about the choices we make in our lives and our societies. Le Diable et le Bon Dieu concerns the decision of a German warlord not to massacre the residents of a town and was apparently Sartre’s favorite of all his plays. An interesting story, I’m sure, but for some reason, it has remained unread on my shelf for, wow, 30 years. It was time to admit to myself I wasn’t going to read it and pass it along to someone who might – like my lovely, clever friend Susy, whose French is way beyond mine and loves a good read.
Like me, Susy was brought up in Scotland and now lives in Los Angeles. A journalist by profession, she lived for 18 years in Paris and worked there as a correspondent for The Times. She just came back from a visit to Paris, where she witnessed close-up the aftermath of the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. A seasoned journalist and someone who really knows French society and politics, she has a broader and more informed view of the situation there than most of us. Talking to her confirmed some of my much less informed thoughts about the situation. Yes, those Islamic terrorists committed an unforgivable, barbaric act against French satirists and journalists and against the principle of freedom of speech itself, but the situation is complex. With its huge Moslem population, both from its former colonies and recent refugees, France has to bear some of the responsibility for the current tension between its Islamic and non-Islamic population. French law forbids Moslems to wear clothing that expresses their religious beliefs, and many French businesses and other employers will not hire even highly educated Moslems. France has not integrated its Moslems well into its broader culture, and at the same time it recently imprisoned a notoriously anti-Semitic comedian for his supposedly “terrorism-defending” comments on Facebook. So is France really as “free” as it claims to be? In no country do people deserve to be murdered for satirizing each other, or for worshipping a different god, or for shopping in certain supermarkets. However, my own experience as a multi-cultural person who has lived in several different countries has taught me that in this world where cultures are increasingly entangled, we all need to be more sensitive to cultural differences and accepting of beliefs, attitudes and traditions that are new to us. Although freedom of speech and freedom of expression are valuable principles in civilized society, we have to remember that, as Jean-Paul Sartre himself once wrote, “Les mots sont des pistolets chargés (Words are loaded guns)” and we have to handle them (and our imagery) with the greatest of care.