Resistance to Israel censorship grows in France

In a direct challenge to recent legal rulings, activists staged a protest calling for the boycott of Israeli goods at a LIDL supermarket in the south of France on 23 January. (Source: BDS France)

France’s justice minister Christiane Taubira resigned on Wednesday in a row over planned constitutional changes that have been likened to policies of the country’s Nazi-era collaborationist regime.

Taubira had publicly disagreed with a provision that would allow the government to strip French citizenship from dual nationals born in France who are convicted of terrorism offenses.

“Sometimes resisting means staying on, and sometimes resisting means going,” Taubira tweeted after she stepped down, prompting numerous responses hailing her for her courage and principle.

But a key area where Taubira has shown no courage, principle or even a hair’s breadth of difference with the increasingly authoritarian Socialist administration of President François Hollande is over the free speech rights and right to assembly of supporters of Palestinian rights.

On the same day Taubira resigned, French authorities in the Rhône region banned a planned demonstration by a Palestine solidarity group.

Standing up

Taubira’s justice ministry vigorously enforced a policy, inherited from the previous right-wing government, to prosecute supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement using hate-speech laws.

This has resulted in harsh penalties and disturbing legal precedents for activists who mounted peaceful protests calling on fellow citizens not buy Israeli products.

Fortunately, however, the courage and principle Taubira lacked is being shown by more and more French citizens who are speaking out and standing up against government repression.

Last week, a dozen prominent French intellectuals and activists defied court rulings by publishing a statement reaffirming their support for BDS and calling on people not to buy Israel goods.

This week, thousands more people have signed on to the same petition, many endorsing BDS for the first time.

Among them are dozens of intellectuals and artists including the philosopher Jacques Rancière, the magistrate Ghislain Poissonnier, the artist Ernest Pignon-Ernest and the director Alain Guiraudie.

They also include the cartoonists Jacques Tardi and Maurice Sinet.

Sinet, known by his pen name Siné, worked for the controversial magazine Charlie Hébdo until he was fired in 2008 over allegations of anti-Semitism, because of a caricature he drew mocking Jean Sarkozy, son of then President Nicolas Sarkozy. In 2010, a court rejected the allegations and found Siné had been wrongfully terminated, awarding him €40,000 in compensation and damages.

Also this week, almost 9,000 people have signed an online petition, launched by BDS France and AURDIP, the French campaign for the academic boycott of Israel, condemning repression of the right to call for the boycott of Israeli goods (English version).

They’ve been joined by dozens of academics around the world.

Supermarket protests resume

Meanwhile, activists are directly challenging French legal rulings by renewing protests calling for the boycott of Israeli goods.

On 23 January, a group of BDS France activists staged a protest at a LIDL supermarket in the south because it carries produce from the Israeli company Mehadrin.

The activists handed out leaflets in the store and gathered signatures in support of BDS.

BDS 34, the local committee that staged the protest, says Mehadrin mislabels settlement products as “Made in Israel,” in violation of European law:

Meanwhile, activists affiliated with the group CAPJPO-EuroPalestine staged a protest at a Carrefour supermarket in Paris this week.

As the video shows, the activists marched through the store chanting slogans such as “Israel criminal, Carrefour accomplice!” and calling on shoppers not to buy Israeli goods.

“It is an answer to BDS trials and to the threats made by our prime minister a few days ago against all those who will dare boycott Israel,” Olivia Zémor of CAPJPO-EuroPalestine said in an email, referring to Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ recent vows to toughen the government’s crackdown even further.

These are exactly the kind of protests for which French prosecutors have gone after activists.

Zémor was herself acquitted in 2013 on charges stemming from a similar protest in 2009.

Protest banned

Meanwhile, police in the Rhône region banned a demonstration in support of BDS calling it a “crime that constitutes incitement to discrimination.”

The protest, organized by the activist group Collectif Palestine 69, was to be held outside a basketball game, Wednesday, between a local team and the Israeli side Maccabi Rishon, in a suburb of Lyon.

Collectif Palestine 69 condemned the ban as an attack on public freedoms and said French authorities were doing Israel’s bidding.

France’s main Israel lobby group CRIF warmly welcomed the ban on the demonstration, saying it would “protect democracy.”

Plus ça change

It is now up to Jean-Jacques Urvoas, Taubira’s replacement as justice minister, to decide whether prosecutors should continue treating such protests as criminal.

An ally of the staunchly pro-Israel Prime Minister Valls, Urvoas is seen as a safe pair of hands who will do the government’s bidding where even Taubira balked.

Although he had in previous years offered mild and “even-handed” criticisms of Israel’s abuses of Palestinian rights, Urvoas has demonstrated a canny ability to tell which way the political winds are blowing.

In 2012, he was one of only a handful of Socialist lawmakers who signed a letter to President Sarkozy urging that France not recognize a Palestinian state – effectively adopting the position pushed by Israel and its lobby in France.

There is no reason to expect that Urvoas will pursue those speaking their conscience on Palestinian rights with any less zeal than Taubira.

But there’s reason to take heart that he will face resistance from a growing number of French citizens who refuse to be silenced.

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If France were at war, for instance, with Algeria (it happened once), could the French not, indeed, speak critically of Algeria, even call for boycott of Algerian products? Or is this law usurped by national foreign policy (in which manner, indeed, it appears also to be enforced)?

Could this law have been used to punish Charlie Hebdo for its Muhammad materials? Did this material not incite difficulties for France, in the event?