Prophet Cartoons Go On Trial in Paris

A picture taken Feb. 18, 2006 shows thousands of Muslims gathered in London's Trafalgar Square during a protest following the publication in a Danish newspaper of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammed. (Photo: Ben Stansall / AFP-Getty Images)

The Prophet Muhammed cartoons that angered Muslims around the world and led to protests in which dozens of people died are on trial in Paris. French Muslim organizations are suing the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo for "public insults against a group of people on the basis of religion."

The trial is a reminder of the potential conflict between France's Muslim community — Europe's largest — and the country's secular values.

"This is an affair about caricatures that incite racism," the head of the Great Mosque of Paris, Dalil Boubakeur, said at a press conference ahead the trial.

The specific accusation against Charlie Hebdo is for reprinting two Danish cartoons: one shows the Prophet wearing a turban with a bomb in it; in a second cartoon, Muhammad greets suicide bombers with the words "Stop, we have run out of virgins."

Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Cabu published his own cartoon about Muhammad, which depicts the Prophet covering his eyes and saying, "It's hard to be loved by assholes." The headline is: "Muhammad overwhelmed by fundamentalists."

"Let's call an asshole, an asshole," blogged Mohammed Sifaoui, author of a book on the Mohammed caricatures and a witness for the defense. "To treat Islamic extremists (and all other extremists) as assholes is an act of Republic citizenship."

The trial's biggest surprise was a letter of support for Charlie Hebdo from Nicolas Sarkozy, minister of the interior and the man leading the polls to be the next French president. In his letter, Sarkozy wrote: "I support your journal, of which I'm a favorite target. I prefer an excess of caricature to an absence of caricature."

As interior minister, Sarkozy is also minister of religious affairs. Sarkozy himself advocated for the creation in 2003 of the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, one of the two plaintiffs. A representative of the group later denounced Sarkozy's support for Charlie Hebdo as "unaccepatable."

Francois Bayrou, the presidential candidate of the center-right Union for French Democracy party, came to the courthouse in person to defend the right to ridicule. He was joined by François Hollande, the secretary-general of the Socialist Party, proclaiming: "I am not here in the name of the Left to support a Left Wing journal, but as a matter of Republican principle."

When accused by the prosecution of "laying hands on the first pillar of Islam," Philippe Val, the publisher of Charlie Hebdo, replied: "If we were required to respect all the taboos of the world's religions, how would be able to live?"

The trial's most surreal moment came when Val, arguably the most irreverent man in France, quoted Pope Jean Paul II, saying: "Be not afraid," adding later on: "If we no longer have the right to laugh at terrorists, what arms are citizens left with?"

In the end, the star witness for Charlie Hebdo was not a politician but Flemming Rose, the culture editor of Jyllands-Posten, the Danish daily that originally published the Mohammed cartoons in 2005. Rose explained that he commissioned them as a protest against Europe's appeasement of radical Islam. The atmosphere of the Paris trial, he added, "reminds me of my early days as a correspondent covering the Soviet Union."

Much of the French press led a verbal charge in support of Charlie Hebdo in the conviction that, in the words of the daily newspaper Libération, "the press itself is on trial."

The French newspaper Le Monde described the trial as belonging to "another age."

"We could have done without this trial," said the same editorial, "but it will prove useful if it reminds people that freedom of expression will never submit to supervision by thought police. Like ideology, religion is completely respectable but not absolved from analysis, criticism and derision."

But do the intellectuals, politicians and editorialists speak for the French people? Not according to a poll published by the Catholic weekly Pèlerin ("pilgrim"). The magazine claims that 79 percent of French people find it unacceptable to publish a parody of Jesus Christ, Mohammad or Buddha.

"Are the French rediscovering the sacred?" it asks.