On 20 October, France’s highest court of criminal appeals upheld the conviction of a dozen Palestine solidarity activists for publicly calling for the boycott of Israeli goods.
The ruling by the Court of Cassation adds to growing concerns about the harsh crackdown on free speech, backed by French President François Hollande, since the murders of journalists at the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo in January.
It also makes France, in addition to Israel, the only country to penalize appeals not to buy Israeli goods.
But the French law, which includes criminal penalties, is arguably harsher than Israel’s which allows boycott supporters to be pursued for financial damages, but not jailed.
“This decision is bad news for the respect of freedom of expression in our country,” France’s century-old human rights group Ligue des Droits de L’Homme said.
“It is one of the outcomes of the desire to silence all criticism of the policies of Israel’s governments and any opposition to the grave human rights violations of which they are guilty,” the group added.
(Update: It should be noted that Ligue des Droits de L’Homme has itself filed a legal complaint against two boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) activists in Montpelier for an allegedly anti-Semitic Facebook posting during Israel’s summer 2014 war on Gaza – a move that is totally inconsistent with its professed commitment to free speech.)
The campaign group BDS France said the court decision marked “a sad day for French democracy when a call to boycott a criminal state that violates human rights is no longer self-evident,” and the government could “distort the spirit of the law whenever it affects a political partner.”
French anti-Palestinian groups have actively backed the judicial crackdown – under the guise of combating anti-Semitism – hoping it will put an end to the campaign of BDS.
Criminalizing peaceful protest
In 2009 and 2010, a dozen BDS activists entered supermarkets in the eastern city of Mulhouse, where they shouted slogans, handed out leaflets and wore shirts urging the boycott of Israeli products.
Their purpose, as BDS France explains, was “to inform customers about the ethical problems involved in the purchase of goods coming from Israel,” including that their production “is part and parcel of the apartheid situation endured by the Palestinian people, the dispossession of their lands [and] the refusal of the refugees’ right of return.”
In 2010, Michèle Alliot-Marie, then justice minister, instructed prosecutors to go after BDS activists across the country.
In December 2011, the Mulhouse activists were acquitted of charges brought by local prosecutors. But in 2013 an appeal court found them guilty under a 1972 law which provides up to a year in prison and large fines to anyone who “provokes discrimination, hatred or violence against a person or a group of people by reason of their origin or their membership or non-membership in a specific ethnic group, nation, race or religion.”
The activists were sentenced to fines and costs amounting to $35,000.
The Court of Cassation upheld the 2013 conviction.
The activists were found guilty for speech calling for “discrimination” against the producers and suppliers of goods by reason of their belonging to the “Israeli nation.”
In a supreme irony, apparently not appreciated by the French judges, Israel’s own high court rejected in 2013 the existence of any “Israeli” nation.
Israel recognizes only Jewish nationality as well as other ethnic and sectarian categories to which it assigns citizens and non-citizens against their will.
He writes that the 1972 law, an amendment to France’s 1881 press law, was intended to combat “discrimination against physical persons and in no case in order to prohibit peaceful calls to boycott the goods of a state whose politics [are] criticized.”
Poissonnier adds that the Court of Cassation violated established principles in French and European law and its decision is all the more questionable given the abundance of calls in recent years for boycotts of goods from other states accused of violating human rights.
The judges, he says, disregarded key facts: the supermarket actions were totally peaceful and store managers brought no charges; there was no interference in the freedom of commerce; the goal of the activists was to bring about the respect for international law; and Israeli goods often carry fraudulent labels to conceal that they come from settlements that are illegal under international law. The activists – and the BDS campaign in France – are, moreover, publicly committed to opposing all forms of racial and religious discrimination, including anti-Semitism.
In another irony, the French government is now pushing strongly for new EU-wide rules to clearly label settlement goods presumably so consumers can boycott them.
Suppressing free speech
Journalist and free-speech campaigner Glenn Greenwald has been particularly scathing of France’s free speech hypocrisy since the Paris march following the Charlie Hebdo massacre “led by dozens of world leaders, many of whom imprison or even kill people for expressing prohibited views.”
Writing at The Intercept, Greenwald says that the “absurdity of France’s celebrating itself for free expression” is vividly highlighted by the conviction of the BDS activists.
“Ponder how pernicious this is. It is perfectly legal to advocate sanctions against Iran, or Russia, or Sudan or virtually any other country,” Greenwald observes. “But it is illegal — criminal — to advocate boycotts and sanctions against one country: Israel.”
He notes that leaders of anti-Palestinian groups in Europe want France’s crackdown to serve as a model for other countries, a goal shared by the powerful US Israel lobby group AIPAC.
Canada’s outgoing Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper already threatened to use hate speech laws to target BDS activists.
Given his record of attacks on BDS activists and his cozying up to Israel in recent days, there is little reason to hope that incoming Liberal Party Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will be any less intolerant.
As for France, even the US State Department-funded think tank Freedom House is expressing concern over the growing restrictions on free speech.
In its latest annual report on Internet freedom, France gets a severe downgrade. Freedom House says that the government and police went into “overdrive” since the Charlie Hebdo killings prosecuting people for things they said online and passing decrees giving ministers the power to block websites.
Such measures, Freedom House states, “threaten Internet freedom in the country.”
One of the cases the report cites is of the high schooler arrested for posting an ironic cartoon on Facebook.
The recent documentary Je ne suis pas Charlie (“I am not Charlie”), by James Kleinfeld, follows journalist Max Blumenthal during a tour of France. The film, which can be viewed online, examines the atmosphere of racism and oppression since the Charlie Hebdo killings.
Ghislain Poissonnier laments that with the Court of Cassation decision, “our country becomes the only one in the world — alongside Israel — to penalize civic appeals not to buy Israeli goods.”
He hopes the activists will appeal their convictions to the European Court of Human Rights.
Its record, he says, is “traditionally more protective of freedom of expression” than the French judiciary and thus “gives reason for hope to all those who were shocked by a decision that leaves France totally isolated.”
BDS France is demanding an end to the prosecutions of activists under Alliot-Marie’s 2010 decree and has affirmed its support for the individuals convicted for their speech.
Unbowed by government repression, BDS France “calls upon everyone, in France and all around the world, to implement the decision of the Palestinian people: to promote the campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions against the State of Israel until it respects international law and the universal principles of human rights.”
“For any citizen with a conscience who is mindful of the rights and the dignity of peoples, to promote BDS is not only a right but a moral duty.”