Indeed, while French intellectuals may have adopted an absolute position against abridgement of free speech – Europe's actual approach to the issue has dramatically reversed in the past decade.
Ethnologist Jeanne Favret-Saada of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris and author of a forthcoming book on the Danish cartoons says, "We Europeans have completely changed positions on secular versus religious issues, and on freedom of expression. During the fatwa on [Salman] Rushdie in 1989 [for his book "The Satanic Verses"], there was unanimity on the question of free expression. It was not debated. But today part of the left has taken the view that the Danish paper was racist."
Recent months have brought a series of messy crises over Islamic integration. In September Pope Benedict XVI brought a small firestorm by quoting a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who said Muhammed commanded his followers to "spread by the sword the faith." A prominent Berlin opera house canceled a performance that included a scene involving the severed head of Muhammad. In France, a philosophy professor, Robert Redeker, is under police protection after writing that Muhammad is a "pitiless war leader [and] pillager."
Yet if anything, the two traditionally moderate Muslim groups bringing suit, the Union of Islamic Organisations of France, and the Grand Mosque, now feel hard pressed. They are pressured to fight for Muslim interests by their constituency. And they got initial support from Mr. Chirac. But they didn't count on the current media circus in France, sources say, and many feel that their high-profile protestations ironically cast them in the extremist image they want to counter. On Wednesday, the Muslim plaintiffs didn't even attend the trial.
"Most minority groups in France have learned how to deal with the press, the state, the courts, and the government," argues Pierre Haski, former editor of the daily Liberation. "But with the Muslims, this is a new thing."