Commentary: Madonna’s French Nazi Montage Sparks Free Speech Debate

African-Americans know all too well that if the ability to call out intolerance is stifled, everyone loses.

Posted: 07/16/2012 09:47 PM EDT
 Madonna made a swastika dig at conservative politician Marine Le Pen in France.

Not known to be shy about expressing herself, Madonna took an especially deep dig at right-wing French politician Marine Le Pen when she flashed a video clip showing a swastika on Le Pen’s face between flashing images of Adolf Hitler while on tour in Europe.

As Le Pen’s party, the National Front, has launched an all out counter-attack against the singer’s display, threatening to sue Madonna under the country’s public insult laws, the most offensive thing about the führer furor is not the offense Madonna caused, but France’s willingness to shut down free speech so succinctly.

Known for her hardline rhetoric and accused of anti-Semitism, Le Pen did considerably well in this year’s presidential election signaling that her clarion call of patriotism, protectionism and state regulation resonated with French voters. Among other campaign promises, Le Pen vowed to pull France out of the Euro, severely slash immigration numbers and re-instate harsh discipline in schools, including fines for the parents of particularly misbehaved children.

However harsh, the National Front says Le Pen is no Hitler and called Madonna’s stunt not only personally offensive for Le Pen and the party, but damaging to history.

"But what seems to me even more serious is the trivialization of Nazism, of something that is horrible. They are, after all, diffusing images of Hitler during a show to be provocative,”  National Front spokesman Florian Philippot told French paper Le JDD.

Whether Madonna missed the mark in her assessment of Le Pen’s politics or propensity to do harm shouldn’t be the issue. She should be free to be as wrong as she wishes to be without fear of fines and litigation. Outside of hate speech, the ability to publicly criticize others (especially politicians) is a critical right that, if taken away, should make folks shudder and gasp more than Madonna’s comparison.

If anything, Madonna’s attempt at calling out Le Pen is an attempt to honor the past by keeping people aware of an issue that may have neglected to look at critically. It’s a maxim that African-Americans know all too well; if we fail to have discussions about racism and intolerance, their related issues somehow seem to become invisible while their insidious effects continue to cause harm.

Having caught wind of offensive video days before Madonna actually played a show in France, Le Pen warned, “If she does that in France, we’ll be waiting for her.”

Regardless of political leanings, Le Pen’s brazen threat should be a warning to the French public that their politicians have gotten a little too comfortable with the existing status quo. Perhaps it is time the French take a page from Madonna’s playbook and shake things up a bit.

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