France now more repressive of boycott calls than Israel

Recent court ruling adds to France’s repression of Palestine solidarity activism. (Flickr)

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.

“Sad day”

“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.”

CRIF, the leading pro-Israel lobby group in France, welcomed the ruling.

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.

“Israeli nation”

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.

French magistrate Ghislain Poissonnier provides background and legal analysis of the Mulhouse case in an article for AURDIP, an organization of academics who support Palestinian rights.

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.”

PA leader Mahmoud Abbas joined world leaders in Paris on 11 January to march for free speech, including the right of French cartoonists to depict the Prophet Muhammad in a bestial manner.

Philippe Wojazer Reuters

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.

Unbowed

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.”

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So much for a "left" wing government? There's got to be more to this than Charlie Hebdo, as the story says, some of these measures go back to 2010.

Fortunetly there was a big turn out against the Tel Aviv Beach party a few months back. But the fact that happened in the first place does make you wonder about the level of Israeli lobbying in the country.

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The French leadership are now actually US puppets ! They do not represent the French people ! They represent the US Corporate Ruling Class that is pushing the world toward WWlll !

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So whatever happened to that BIG rally France had about free speech when Charlie Hebdo was attacked for a cartoon claiming Islam terrorist did. Seems all that prep to show the world that France is a nation of democracy and all these leaders went to walk the walk for free press, free speech, free expression was just a pot of crap. Free speech when the government wants it only. Looks like all that pepper spray was tested by Palestinians and France brought a good shipment to be tested on their citizens. Democracy looks more like police state to me. Funny how we try to brainwash society in believing Islam is taking away everyone's freedom and yet the governments are taking away their own citizens freedom. Wonder who's the extremists here, cause it sure hell isn't Muslims , unless all of a sudden all of France governments of power are muskkms ...yeah let's go with that. Lol

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Despite being the only country to criminalise calls for a boycott of Israel, France has been singled out by Netanyahu and his cohorts as being particularly unsafe for Jews. Bibi has even called for the mass emigration of French Jews to Israel, where they are promised a peaceful and secure future (!) Perhaps if the authorities in France enact even harsher measures against Israel's opponents, Netanyahu will relent and allow French Jews to remain in the land of their birth, free of harassment and meddling by opportunistic foreign potentates. Then again, perhaps not. He has established form in matters of ethnic cleansing.

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François Hollande is a Zionist hypocrite and this law is a betrayal of the French constitution's guarantee of freedom of speech. Clearly, he's highly selective about civil liberties, which he only deigns to protect when politically convenient for himself and for apartheid Israel~! ‪The #‎BDS‬ activists should most definitely appeal their convictions to the European Court of Human Rights; I can't imagine the ECHR would uphold these convictions, which are clearly a violation of human rights and an outrageous abrogation of freedom of speech.

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An excellent article filled with backed up professional
reporting that is necessary even when the hypocrisy and
evil is outrageous. Excellent comments as well.

SPECULATIVE:

Not based on proven (confirmed) information, it should
be noted that the "combat tested" arms advertised by
Israel (combat tested on Palestinians) resulted in a
loss of sales of 2 BILLION dollars and further that this
is known to those who rule Israel. That is a lot of dollars!

France manufactures weapons.

Are you making any connections between Israeli PR.
international actions and the quality of economic life
for Israelis, now the 7th largest arms producer in
the world? These are facts, not conspiracy theories.

The direct relationship to Israeli international politics
and ultra sensitivity on being boycotted not proven. It is
extremely likely.

In such a case Israel (and France) are not talking about
morality, about "principles". They are talking about
big bucks. (See recent article by Rania Khalek in EI.)

----Peter Loeb, Boston, MA USA

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What the article doesn't say is that the French justice system is divided over the grounds for prosecuting calls for boycotts: in some cases the rulings are based on "anti-discrimination" laws, but in others (like the forthcoming Toulouse case, 9th December), the basis is a 2010 circular from Mme Alliot-Marie (not a decree) requiring observance of an obscure clause in a trade law prohibiting activities that prevent companies from conducting "normal business". Obviously a pretext in extremely bad faith, but reporting needs to make this clear to show how laws and regulations (on trade in this case) are being manipulated to prevent freedom of expression, and to help set precedents for the defence of activists being prosecuted on ambiguous grounds.

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At the turn of the 2oth Century a journalist in France, Theodore Herzl, incensed by the Dreyfus case where a Jewish officer, Dreyfus, was unjustly found guilty of treason, that he began a campaign for Jewish state, a campaign which ended in 1948 with the Zionist proclamation of the State of Israel. The injustice split France and eventually the verdict was overturned. Now it seems that again anti Semitism rears its ugly head, in that all Jews are held to support Israel's barbarity. This is the epitome of anti Semitism. More importantly it criminalises the fight against injustice. Thus has the Dreyfus case come full circle and France is again in the dock for its racism this time against the Palestinians.

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Many thanks to "Zelig" above for his information on French law.
Historical fact is extremely valuable.

Note: Herzl having believed in "Pan Germanism" accepted
the fact that races had their own "purity of blood". In
the case of the Jews he defined "the chosen" as a "race"
which of course was entirely inaccurate. (Polish
Jews felt Polish, German Jews felt Jewish etc.) Herzl
concocted a race to suit his objective and the anti-
semitic goals of those (eg Arther J. Balfour) who
wished for a way to get rid of Jews .

On boycotts, it is of interest to note that Israelis
themselves have advocated boycotts against
others. I confess I do not know the times (sources).
Zionists and only later "Israelis"(after 1948)
knew the value of economic pressure.

The decision by the EU is considered "immoral"
(Netanyahu). Only Israel can decide what is
Israel (or perhaps they would say only God etc?)
The EU decision was not adequate by far but
represents if anything a beginning, only a
tiny beginning, the the world (outside of the
US) beginning to refuse a free pass to Israel
for everything. Because they are Jews??

(Would not Muslims have the same impunity
because they or a group is Muslim? Or
fundamentalist Christians a free pass because
they are Christians??? etc.)

Remember as well that Zionists immediately
rejected the Palestinian proposal for a single secular
nation, constitution etc. in 1946. The US immediately
followed suit in the Zionist rejection.

The massacres of Palestinians of 1948-49 and
continuing today have been the result.

----Peter Loeb, Boston, MA USA

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Sad, France is a great nation, and its culture based upon the revolution that took power away from a crook government and back to the people in respect of the people. I don´t see any of it in the French government now. Looking forward to see France change course !

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It seems utterly incredible that non violent forms of protest and free speech should be oppressed by governments of both France and UK, it is time to tear up the cosy collaboration of EU Conservatism. Long live BDS against tyrants such as Assad and Netenyahu.

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Militante de l'Association France Palestine Solidarité, et distribuant régulièrement des tracts BDS, je m'élève contre le mélange des genres entre cet excellent article, et les photos et commentaires de la marche "CHARLIE" de janvier. Notre combat est le même SI nous nous situons en dehors de ce qu'on voudrait nous faire prendre pour des querelles religieuses, dangeureuse dérive qui a été justement dénoncée par les journalistes de Charlie. Vive les luttes , dans le contexte SEUL de la laicité.

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I have always said there is no such thing as democracy or free speech.The French government has shown its true colors.Complete disregard for the people. Pro-Israeli to the core.
Go to my website the-good-society.com where i expalin the imperial system we live,and the power systems that dominate our lives
Israel is part of the Western Imperial system therefore it has 'licence to kill' (Palestinians)without suffering any consequences.

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No doubt the Trans Pacific Trade Partnership will be pressed into service against BDS activists in Australia, New Zealand and other Pacific countries. Anything which impinges on the sovereign right of US corporations to make profit whether it be environmental opposition to CSG drilling or genetic manipulation of food will be criminalised. The TPTP is AIPAC's dream come true!

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absolutely, and TTIP as well, which is a continuation of the GATS and all those other attempts to give sovereign rights to private companies over the last 25 years. In fact it's not impossible that the reactivation of that obscure trade clause by Ms Alliot-Marie in France in 2010 was with a view to TTIP, not to boycott banning - the latter being opportunist.

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.