For over a year now I have most Fridays been part of a French conversation group, which meets a pleasant 25-minute walk away from my house. The coffee is good, as are the teaching, company and conversation, while the biscuits are very often a particular favourite of mine: the plain chocolate version of Petit écolier by LU, visible in the shot above. LU is short for "Lefèvre-Utile" and the company was founded by Jean-Romain Lefèvre in Nantes in 1846. Although, as is so often the way with enterprises once they achieve a certain level of fame and establish a brand, the company is now owned by a large American corporate (which also manages, among numerous other brands, Toblerone and Cadbury's Dairy Milk), the quaintly sculpted eponymous little scholar still gazes out from the slab of chocolate on top of each petit beurre.
Each week a member of the group chooses an article on a topic of current world, or very often particularly French, interest, which we read in advance of the meeting and then discuss. This week's article considered a recent test of France's long-established tradition of secularism, known as laïcité. A court had ruled against the display of a Nativity scene in a municipal building on the grounds that, while such a display would be perfectly permissible in a church, it was quite out of order in a town hall, the domain of the secular.
So far, so clair, but what if—as some ingenious commentator pointed out—the figurines of Mary, Joseph and le petit Jésus were not just craft items but examples of a traditional art form? Should they not, in that case, be accorded the protections accorded to such artworks as Andres Serrano's Piss Christ (1987), a photograph of a crucifix suspended in a container of the artist's own urine? This and other controversial items (such as a 2010 photograph of a young man wiping his derrière with a French flag) had been permitted for display. Appeal could of course be made to La Ligue des droits de l'homme, the French NGO responsible for the protection of human rights, founded in 1898 to defend Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew and an officer in the French Army falsely accused of treason. The snag is that La Ligue is the very organisation that brought the case against the offending Christmas figurines in the first place.
Our discussion, which was heartfelt and earnest, of course took place against the background, unforeseen when the article was originally chosen some weeks ago, of the double terrorist incidents in Paris and its environs over the last couple of days. The days ahead, it seems inevitable, will be taken up by much further debate, increasing political unrest, heated religious controversy and—oh God, may it not be so—physical danger. Reports are now appearing on the internet that Serrano's controversial image has been removed from the publicly available archive of Associated Press.
I seek to follow Christ. I do not like Serrano's work and yesterday I saw a Charlie Hebdo cartoon depicting the Holy Trinity that tested my tolerance, but when I stop to examine such images, I can accept them as a spur to engagement and debate. Although I do not abandon my instinct that there are fundamental ideas that should be grasped and defended, I surrender my right to take offence because clinging jealously to it would lead me on a much darker path.