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17 March 2013
A VICTORY FOR FREE SPEECH
On 23 February 2008 at the annual agricultural show in Paris a farmer refused to shake hands with the then President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, a rightwinger, who was paying an official visit to the show.
Sarkozy’s riposte was swift and brutal. “Casse-toi, pov’ con!” he told the farmer. “Sod off, you stupid prat!”
On 28 August 2008 Sarkozy was in a motorcade visiting the town of Laval in western France when a leftwing activist called Hervé Eon held up an A-4 sized cardboard placard bearing the legend “Sod off, you stupid prat”.
Retribution was not slow in coming.
Eon, a former social worker, aged 61, was immediately arrested.
He was subsequently charged with offending the head of state contrary to a law passed in 1881.
On 6 November 2008 the Laval magistrates’ court convicted Eon of offending the French head of state and imposed a fine of 30 euros (roughly $40 or £26), which was suspended provided that no subsequent offence was committed.
Eon appealed but his appeal was rejected by both the initial and final French courts of appeal.
He then appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), whose rulings take precedence over national court decisions.
Last week, on 14 March 2013, the ECHR ruled in favour of Eon and quashed his conviction on the grounds that his protest was political. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which forms the basis of decisions by the ECHR, protects freedom of speech in political life.
In the final round of the French presidential election on 6 May 2012 Sarkozy, who had been president since 2007, lost out to his centre-left rival François Hollande.
Readers might take note that this is not a Gulf sheikhdom dictatorship that we are talking about here, but a leading western democracy at the heart of the European Union.
France, ironically, was the home of Voltaire (1694-1778), the leading champion of freedom of expression in 18 C Europe. Voltaire’s remark to the French philosopher Helvétius (1715-1771) – “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” – has remained a clarion-call to champions of free speech ever since.
Readers might also note that when Sarkozy said “Sod off, you stupid prat” to a farmer at the 2008 agricultural show his remark was greeted with a resounding lack of reaction from the French legal establishment.
It would seem then that in France the President can slag off a citizen with impunity but a citizen cannot legally respond in kind.
On cannot help but recall the ruling of the pig dictators in the satire “Animal Farm” published in 1945 by the English political writer George Orwell (1903-1950): “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”.
Thank goodness, at least, for supranational jurisdiction. The ECHR does not always get it right, but in its absence national despotism would go unchecked.
The French press has contrasted Sarkozy’s crude response to public criticism with that of Jacques Chirac, his rightwing predecessor, who was president from 1995 to 2007.
When Chirac was confronted by a protester who called out “idiot” to him at a public event, Chirac turned to the man and calmly replied: “Pleased to meet you, Idiot. My name is Chirac.”
You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts. For instance:
1. Why? or How? That is the question (3 Jan 2012)
2. Partitocracy v. Democracy (20 July 2012)
3. The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices (2 Feb 2012)
4. Capitalism in practice (4 July 2012)
5.Ladder (21 June 2012)
6. A tale of two cities (1) (6 June 2012)
7. A tale of two cities (2) (7 June 2012)
8. Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat (31 Jan 2012)
Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.