French court overturns “illegal” ban on BDS event

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who visited Israel earlier this month, is facing increasing resistance to his crackdown on the BDS movement. (via Facebook)

A court in France struck a blow for free speech when it overturned a government ban on a meeting to support individuals facing trial for their Palestine solidarity activism.

The decision comes as governments and organizations around the world are showing increasing willingness to defend the legitimacy of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement in support of Palestinian rights.

On 26 May, the mayor’s office in the southern city of Toulouse banned the gathering scheduled for Tuesday evening at a public facility, featuring Mohammed Khatib of the Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network and writer Eric Hazan.

The meeting was sponsored by the Support Committee for the BDS Accused of Toulouse, a coalition of dozens of groups backing four activists facing trial next month for handing out leaflets calling for the boycott of Israeli goods.

But on Monday, the Toulouse administrative court overturned the mayor’s ban and ordered the city to provide a space for the meeting to take place.

The court stated that the mayor’s ban on the meeting was “a grave and manifestly illegal infringement of the fundamental freedom of assembly,” according to BDS France and Association France Palestine Solidarité.

A photo posted on the Facebook page of the Support Committee for the BDS Accused of Toulouse shows that the meeting went ahead as planned on 31 May.

“Democratic society”

Activist groups celebrated what they saw as a significant victory in light of France’s draconian crackdown on speech supporting Palestinian rights and the BDS movement.

In March, the Toulouse city council voted by a large majority to condemn BDS and to refuse to provide public facilities to “events that aim to promote the boycott of Israel.”

The measure would appear to be part of the wave of legislation aimed at quashing the BDS movement passed or introduced in legislatures in Europe and North America at Israel’s urging.

The mayor’s letter banning the Tuesday meeting had cited an October 2015 decision by the Court of Cassation, France’s highest court of criminal appeals, which upheld the conviction of a dozen Palestine solidarity activists for publicly calling for the boycott of Israeli goods.

That ruling also made France, in addition to Israel, the only country to penalize appeals not to buy Israeli products.

But France’s mainstream civil liberties group, Ligue des Droits de l’Homme, noted that the October decision is currently under appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

The group said that the appeal argues that “calls for boycott aimed at products and not persons, ‘and which are part of a nonviolent critique of a state’s policies, fall within the framework of free democratic debate that is at the heart of the notion of a democratic society.’”

Ligue des Droits de l’Homme called for the acquittal of all BDS activists and for an end to the government policy of prosecuting them for the exercise of their democratic rights.

This statement comes as hundreds of organizations in Europe, including trade unions representing millions of workers, are publicly rejecting the Israeli-backed effort to repress Palestine solidarity activism.

The latest organization to do so is FIDH Worldwide Movement for Human Rights, whose international board has “formally recognized and reaffirmed” the right of individuals around the world to participate in the BDS movement to protest Israel’s “longstanding policies of unlawful occupation and discrimination of Palestinians.”

Founded in 1922, FIDH is a federation of 178 human rights organizations operating in 120 countries to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Out of step

In recent months, three EU governments, Sweden, the Netherlands and Ireland, have publicly recognized the legitimacy of the BDS movement and defended boycott advocacy as free speech.

Earlier this month the Ontario parliament handily defeated an anti-BDS bill that civil liberties groups warned would have had a disastrous impact on the democratic rights of people in Canada’s most populous province.

But France, which has professed to champion free speech under the banner “Je Suis Charlie,” appears to be heading in the other direction.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls used a visit to Israel last week as an opportunity to renew his smears against the BDS movement.

Speaking at Tel Aviv University, Valls claimed that “hatred of the Jews as a whole” lay behind the BDS movement.

In another potentially significant development, France’s powerful Israel lobby group CRIF elected a new leader.

Francis Kalifat, born in French-occupied Algeria, will succeed Roger Cukierman and become the organization’s first ever non-Ashkenazi president.

According to the newspaper Le Figaro, Kalifat is a former activist with Betar, “the right-wing Zionist youth movement, sometimes called extremist, which advocates self-defense and which does not hesitate to throw punches in the street.”

The new CRIF president announced that his priority would be to quickly obtain “in a clear manner the prohibition in France of the BDS movement.”

These are indications that the French government and its allies are certain to persist in their repressive policies.

But as it so often does, repression is backfiring as French and European civil society defends the right to call for the boycott of Israel and the institutions complicit in its regime of occupation, colonization and apartheid.