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French teen critical of Islam becomes center of free speech debate

13 people are on trial in Paris for harassing the girl, known as Mila, forcing her to leave school and be placed under police protection

The teenager identifying herself online as Mila, center right, leaves the courtroom on Monday, June 21, 2021 in Paris. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
The teenager identifying herself online as Mila, center right, leaves the courtroom on Monday, June 21, 2021 in Paris. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

PARIS (AFP) — At just 18 years old, a French teenager has sparked a national debate about free speech, over which she has faced death threats online and been defended by President Emmanuel Macron.

The girl, known simply as Mila, says she craves nothing more than a normal life after a furor that erupted last year, when her videos criticizing Islam in vulgar terms went viral on social media.

But a quiet life appears off the cards for now as France’s most outspoken teen, who says she has received more than 100,000 hateful messages, brings out a book titled “I am the Price of Your Freedom.”

Its publication comes as the trial resumed in Paris of 13 people accused of subjecting her to such vicious harassment that she was forced to leave school and was placed under police protection.

Several defendants told the court on Monday they simply did not think before tweeting.

A 21-year-old language student identified as Lauren G. said she was “tired of seeing her [Mila’s] name all the time in my news feed.”

One of her co-accused, 19-year-old Axel G., said he reacted in anger because he considered Mila’s remarks about Islam to be “racist” and “blasphemous.”

Mila, a French teenage girl placed under police protection, arrives for the opening hearing of the trial of the so-called “Mila case,” at the Paris courthouse on June 3, 2021. (Bertrand GUAY/AFP)

Mila, also speaking in court, denounced those threatening her and called the harassment “totally unjustified.”

“I’m not issuing death threats to anybody just because I don’t like something they said,” she told the criminal court, sporting a white jacket, black dress and blue-green hair.

“Nothing can excuse such criminal, monstrous words,” she added.

The story of Mila goes to the core of the debate over freedom of expression that has raged in France since 2015, when Islamist gunmen attacked the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for publishing cartoons of the prophet Mohammed.

She has been feted by some, especially on the right, as a hero of the fight for freedom of expression in secular France, though critics accuse her of needlessly provoking observant Muslims.

“We no longer have the right to mock, criticize or insult religions, even when they are intolerant, sexist or homophobic,” she writes in her book.

On January 18, 2020, Mila who was 16 at the time and describes herself as pansexual, meaning she is attracted to people of all genders, was asked if she has a preference for whites, Arabs or black people.

“I answered simply that Arabs and Blacks are not particularly my type and that they do not attract me physically,” writes Mila, whose full name has been withheld for security reasons.

A boy who had shown interest in her then insulted her “in the name of Allah.”

Muslims pray in the street for Friday prayer in the Paris suburb of Clichy la Garenne, Friday, Nov. 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

After receiving threats she launched into an anti-Islam tirade, declaring: “Islam is shit… Your religion is shit. I put my finger into the asshole of your God. Thank you and goodbye.”

Her outburst triggered a flood of insults.

“She received over 100,000 hate messages and death threats,” her lawyer Richard Malka, who also represents Charlie Hebdo, told a court earlier this month.

Mila, who was forced to leave school — no establishment would enroll her for security reasons — says her life became “hell.”

To go unnoticed, she wore a disguise when out in public.

“Even when I go outside, I am in prison,” she told French television in a recent interview.

The danger is real: on a language study trip to Malta last summer she was threatened with death and rape by a fellow student, who recognized her. He was arrested and convicted on the island.

Undaunted, Mila published a new video in November, reaffirming her previous tirade.

The 13 defendants being tried in Paris over the harassment are aged between 18 and 30. Most have no criminal records.

They risk up to three years in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros ($38,000) if convicted.

When the controversy erupted, supporters of the teen tweeted solidarity under the hashtag #JeSuisMila (I am Mila), echoing the #JeSuisCharlie slogan around which millions of people rallied following the deadly 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists.

Macron was among those who defended her, saying: “The law is clear. We have the right to blaspheme, to criticize and caricature religions.”

Not all echoed such sentiments, however, especially on the left. Asked by French television “Are You Mila?” the Socialist ex-president Francois Hollande replied testily: “No, I am Francois Hollande.”

He added: “We have the right to criticize religions. Mila had every right to criticize religion. But, like everyone else, me the first, she should not engage in hate speech about those who practice their religion.”

Mila has vowed to continue speaking her mind.

“Even if I have a knife placed under my neck, I won’t stop speaking out,” she told TF1 television this month.

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