But then on September 15 I attended the first anti-video demonstration in Paris, where about 150 completely peaceful Muslims were arrested. What I was reminded of is just how armed to teeth Franceâ€™s riot forces are: Covered in armor, carrying automatic weapons, surely combat trained - and thatâ€™s just the ones in the open, not the undercover cops that come out of nowhere. I thought to myself: â€œThese 3 or 400 cops could fight off probably 3,000 unarmed demonstrators. The Spanish conquistadors didnâ€™t have such advantages!â€
So, when the Interior Minister took the rare step of banning another demonstration on September 22 because of fears that the order of the Republic was threatened, I wasnâ€™t about to swallow it. France isnâ€™t Pakistan - their security forces are equipped to handle any demonstration, and France has some 3,600 protests a year.
(In fact, few realize how close French riot police came to strangling the Arab Uprising in its infancy: Sarkozyâ€™s foreign minister was forced to resign after she told French parliament that France could offer Tunisian tyrant Ben Ali â€œthe know-how of [its] security forces to help control this type of situationâ€. Had Ben Ali accepted, he might still be in power.)
In the interim, of course, the French state did not prevent satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo from making not one but two print runs of their juvenile cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). It appears that Charlie Hebdo does not share my reservations about inappropriately pushing the limits of free expression.
A thought about Charlie Hebdo: I watched and read interviews with their staff, and what struck me is their insistence that they are only bound by French laws, and not subject to restrictions used in other countries. Reflect on what a nationalistic, reactionary statement that is: It really denies any concept of universal human dignity or enlightened sense of respect for all, regardless of address. Well, how much should we expect from people who didnâ€™t give up drawing obscene cartoons after adolescence?
But attend the demonstration I must, even though all of France knew of the mass arrests at the first protest. Few protesters were expected and even fewer arrived, because most Muslims had better things to do on a Saturday than accept a guarantee of trip to the police station just to make cheap headlines and help the Socialists win the grumpy law-and-order vote.
Perhaps 15 minutes before the demonstration was supposed to begin three men sitting next to a group of bored journalists were kicked out by police. Their biggest crime seemed to be having a prayer bump on their forehead. I asked the police what they had done to forbid them a seat in a public suare and he replied, â€œNothing,â€ which was really just a way to avoid conversation. The men left peacefully, like all Muslims at both protests.
But, sickeningly, what became clear was that anyone who appeared to Muslim had no right to be at Place du Trocadero, one of Parisâ€™ premier tourist spots due to its commanding view of the Eiffel Tower just 100 meters away. You can see from my video report exactly who was arrested: a fed-up old lady, young men being pushed by policemen, a family of four women eating ice cream cones! What kind of a violent Salafist shows up at a demonstration eating ice cream! I wonder if the dead-eyed policemen realized they were making history with such a high-level capture.
But this was ban wasnâ€™t about banning Islamic radicals, it was to demean and control the French Muslim population. Of course, it also elevates and distracts non-Muslim French who live in a country which is on the brink of recession and has already implemented vast austerity measures.
A half hour later it became clear to everyone how fast Franceâ€™s ban on freedom of assembly can turn into witch hunts. A young black man, tall and dressed in American fashion, soon found himself surrounded by six or seven cops. He didnâ€™t appear to understand French, but if he had he would have known that his crime was to be dark-skinned and possessing a beard of medium thickness. As he was being pushed out many couldnâ€™t help but laughing, except for the black man, of course.
In the end, the journalists outnumbered the protesters across France. In the city of Marseilles a police helicopter and a swarm of journalists greeted a single protester. Such sights are amusing, but letâ€™s be very clear: Muslims in France in absolutely no way enjoy the rights of freedom of expression afforded to â€˜regular Frenchâ€™, and that is appalling.
France likes to refer to itself as the nation that founded the concept human rights. Anyone who believes that must not be paying much attention. Denying French citizens their right to express themselves peacefully is discrimination, segregation and elitist, all of which are also time-honored French principles.
Even on the internet we columnists have space limitations, but thereâ€™s no need to labor the above point.
Someone asked me: â€œWho attends these types of protests?â€ Well, in France the Muslims can be divided into two groups: those who appear very observant, but the majority are post-adolescents with a bemused expression. Theyâ€™re nearly all men, and hail from the poor Muslim suburbs of Paris. They actually have a lot in common with anti-video protesters around the world: they live in overcrowded conditions, they went to poor schools and have even worse employment opportunities, they feel their lives are controlled by an outside elite and they feel that no one is listening to them. Of course in France the Muslims canâ€™t even talk, apparently.
At the fringes of these demonstrations are the modern fascists who couldnâ€™t be happier than watching a dozen Muslim youths surrounded by 40 or 50 menacing cops.
A middle-aged â€œregular Frenchâ€ woman I spoke to at the second protest was unreservedly supportive of the crackdown at free speech. She pointed at a teenage girl dressed in a full-length Muslim dress and said to me, â€œLook at her: She is clearly wearing that dress in order to provoke people.â€
Marginally surprised, I remarked that she was probably just a religious young woman and gave old people like us no thought at all. I asked her if she knew many Muslims.
â€œI am a teacher and and I can tell you that in France only 3 out of 10 Arabs in France are any good,â€ she said.
A big part of my job is to listen to all types of people and relate their opinions. I told her I was journalist and asked her if she would like to relate her opinions on camera. Of course, she declined.
â€œYes,â€ I lamented, â€œThe problem is that very few people with opinions like yours have the courage to say them openly.â€ She hadnâ€™t realized I was a journalist, and I hadnâ€™t guessed she was full of such nonsense.
Still, I would have been more than happy to include her nonsense in my video report, if only to show that freedom of expression in France doesnâ€™t have to be a one-way street.
Ramin Mazaheri was educated at the University of Missouri (US), where he majored in print journalism and history. Mazaheri worked for Radio France Internationale before joining Press TV as Paris correspondent. His works have appeared in various journals. Mazaheri is a frequent contributor to Press TV.