My family and I left the US for life in Paris, France a while back, and have been enjoying it immensely. Contrary to American stereotypes, the people have largely been quite nice and accommodating. And of course, life in Paris has a lot to be said for it - the architecture, the food, the history.
The official motto, if not philosophy, of la république, is the famous battle cry of the past: "Liberté (freedom), Egalité (equality), Fraternité (brotherhood). I've heard that if the list were put in the order of actual importance, equality would come first, and liberty at the end.
That said, France is the land of Voltaire, who is often (wrongly) associated with the famous quote that one may "disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." In fact, the quote belongs to Evelyn Beatrice Hall (herself English) who wrote a biography of Voltaire.
One frequently hears self-proclaimed liberals invoking the quote. Sometimes, just before they condemn someone whose politics they don't like, and just after passing a speech code.
In the US, there is a First Amendment, guaranteeing one the freedom to say what one likes without risk of government prosecution. There are limits, of course. No such explicit right exists in France, though it is generally true that one may say what one likes so long as one stays within certain vague boundaries. That's, of course, not real free speech, but close to it. Something like the way that Velveeta - a "cheese food product" emulates cheese.
Anyhow, this has become clear in France as we witness the déroulement of events surrounding the "humourist" Dieudonné M'bala M'bala. Known more broadly in France by his given name Dieudonné (his actual name, as irony would have it), the provocateur has irritated the local government and chattering classes with a thinly-veiled anti-semitic "salute" which he has named la quenelle.
Being that I am not French, I had never heard of this guy, but he is quite well-known as a second-rate comedian, third-rate actor, and bottom-feeding politician. Despite this, he is currently dominating the news in France, largely because the government, led by the Interior Minister Manuel Valls (he is the head of domestic policy, including the police), have decided that enough is enough with Dieudonné, and have thusly moved to block his shows. Citing a vague threat to "public security," the socialist government sought court action to ensure that the show not go on.
(As an aside, in French, these shows are called spectacles, which I do not doubt that they are, in the English sense.)
Make no mistake - I have zero sympathies for a thug like this guy, but I am shocked to see the government here - the land of Voltaire - move to ban his performances. In essence, they are making what amounts to offensive speech illegal.
My feelings all along have been that freedom of speech exists not to protect speech we like - even North Korea allows one to offer fawning encomia to the current (insert obsequious superlative) Leader; freedom of speech means tolerating - even defending - speech we find repugnant.
Not sure if this 'news' has made it to the US, but I presume it has in one sense - the local paper ran a story about basketball player Tony Parker, a French citizen, who made a quenelle during a game, and has subsequently been brow-beaten into an overwrought apology.
Equally disturbing - France has, despite its greatness, very real problems. Unemployment is very high. The torching of 1100 cars on New Year's Eve represents a reduction over 2012. A couple of thousand soldiers are deployed in God-forsaken central Africa despite overwhelming public opposition. The recent PISA (school tests) results show the schools here slipping. The country has massive camps of illegal immigrants festering just beyond the gleaming cities, with sky-high crime and other social maladies, which the government seems utterly impotent to do a thing about.
And the top priority for the government is to try to crush out an obnoxious, unfunny comedian. Valls was headlined today, after an appeals court overturned another lower court who had ruled that the ban was a violation of basic free speech, commenting that "la République a gagnée" (the republic has won). Well, the republic - the state - may have won; but its citizens have lost something. Something more important.
I personally think this is the ultimate bread and circuses sideshow.
But I am further reminded of an equally famous comment by William F Buckley - to paraphrase: Liberals claim to want to defend and listen to other views, but are then shocked and even offended to discover that there in fact, are views other than their own.