France: Insulting the President no longer an offence but reform does not go far enough
26 Jul 2013
ARTICLE 19 welcomes the repeal of a provision of the Law of 29 July 1881 on Freedom of the Press (the Press Law), which made insulting the French president a crime punishable by a fine of 45,000 euros (60,000 USD). However, ARTICLE 19 is concerned that this reform will have little practical impact as defaming “public officials” still remains a separate discrete offence under the Press Law that carries exactly the same penalty.
“A law granting special protection against defamation or insult of public officials is an anachronism that cannot be justified in a modern democracy,” said Dr Agnes Callamard, ARTICLE 19 Executive Director. “It is now well established under international law that such officials should tolerate more, rather than less, criticism than ordinary citizens. Laws granting them higher protection must be abolished.”
Up until now, it was a crime to insult the president of the French Republic under Article 26 of the Press Law. Though seldom used, Hervé Eon was convicted under this provision in 2008 after he showed a banner stating “Get lost you prat” during a visit by the French President Sarkozy in Eon’s town. In March 2013, in Eon v France, the European Court of Human Rights found that Eon’s conviction violated his right to freedom of expression.
This is not the first time that France is being condemned by the European Court because of the antiquated provisions of its Press Law. Following the Colombani judgment in 2002, France abolished the offence of insulting foreign heads of state.
While the repeal of the offence against insulting the president is a welcome move, ARTICLE 19 is concerned that it will make little practical difference as long as special provisions remain in place to protect public officials against defamation. The fines that may be imposed for defamation of public officials – a status which would almost certainly include the president - are exactly the same as those that were previously available for the offence of offending the president, i.e. 45,000 euros. Moreover, these fines are almost four times higher than those that would be available for defaming private persons.
ARTICLE 19 recalls that protecting heads of state or public officials from criticism solely because of their function or status cannot be reconciled with modern democracy and violates both international and European freedom of expression standards.
The European Court has repeatedly stated that exposure to increased criticism of public officials is an inevitable consequence of a career in politics, and freedom of political debate is integral to the contemporary concept of a democratic society. Similar recommendations were made by the special mandates on freedom of expression and other regional bodies.
ARTICLE 19 is dismayed that in a long-established democracy like France, criminal sanctions remain available for defamation and that those sanctions are almost four times higher when defaming public officials as opposed to private individuals. ARTICLE 19 calls on the French government to abolish the remaining anachronistic provisions of the Press Law and bring its legislation in compliance with international freedom of expression standards.