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France may be overreaching in crackdown after Charlie Hebdo murders

In this Jan. 11, 2014 file photo, French comedian Dieudonne M'Bala M'Bala arrives for his press conference in a theater in Paris, France.

Michel Euler/AP

France is running some risks of overreaching in its crackdown after the Charlie Hebdo murders. Christiane Taubira, the Minister of Justice, has sent out a circular to all French prosecutors to act with "firmness" and "extreme reactivity" on charges such as apologie du terrorisme, roughly meaning "defending terrorism." Sixty-nine such prosecutions – and counting – have been launched. A few people have already been convicted, with dizzying speed – and a few are minors, too.

The outrageous, popular and sometimes outright racist comedian Dieudonné M'bala M'bala was detained and charged with defending terrorism, because he described himself on Facebook as "Charlie Coulibaly" – offensively splicing together the surname of the anti-Semitic murderer at the Hyper-Cacher store in Paris with the murdered staff of Charlie Hebdo itself.

Manuel Valls, the Prime Minister, in a speech in the National Assembly on Tuesday, said that France's wave of terrorism demanded "exceptional measures," but "never measures of exception that would derogate from the principle of law and values."

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The Prime Minister singled out Dieudonné as "a preacher of hate" and indeed "a recidivist of hate" (he has been fined for hate speech in the recent past), a clear suggestion that the prosecution of the comedian was decided on at the highest level.

Before he spoke, the whole Assembly sang La Marseillaise, the first time the Assembly has done so since the First World War ended. It was a clear call to arms. But so far, none of the accused people in this campaign appear to have been actually involved in the terrorist attacks in France this month.

Should reckless teenagers who shout "Death to Charlie" really be detained and charged with terrorism-related offences? Should comedians?

The speed and determination with which the French government is acting evokes the efficient reign of terror under the Jacobins in 1793-94. It's fortunate that the guillotine is no longer in effect.

Excesses in the United States after Sept. 11, 2001, and in Canada in 1970, when the War Measures Act was invoked, show that no country is immune to overzealousness. President François Hollande and Mr. Valls should be held to their professed adherence to the rule of law.

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