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article imageMocking Sarkozy not a crime, says European Court of Human Rights

By Robert Myles     Mar 15, 2013 in World
Strasbourg - In a judgement issued yesterday the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has over-ruled an earlier decision of a French court which resulted in a man who had mocked former French President Nicolas Sarkozy being given a suspended fine of €30.
The French court had imposed a derisory penalty when it found Hervé Eon, a former social worker and member of the hard-left political party, the Parti de Gauche, guilty of an “affront to the head of state” under a 19th century law which created the offence of insulting the President of France, reports RFI English.
Eon’s ‘crime’ was that he had waved a placard in front of the Presidential car when the then President Sarkozy was visiting the town of Laval in Mayenne department in north west France. It wasn’t even a big placard. The Guardian reports that the small A4 sized homemade cardboard sign did not even feature Sarkozy's name. What put the 61 year old Eon on the wrong side of the law, at least until the European Court of Human Rights intervened, was the wording, in French, on the placard which read, “Casse-toi pov'con.”
The Guardian translated this as the quite genteel, “"Get lost, you prat," but France 24 was a bit more forthright saying the phrase meant “Get lost, you sad prick!”
However the phrase read in English, the French prosecution authorities were clear that Eon had breached France’s Freedom of the Press Act dating from 1881. This Act had been almost forgotten having fallen into disuse since the presidency of General Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s.
The background to the phrase which French prosecutors deemed so insulting stemmed from a visit which then President Sarkozy had made to the 2008 Paris agricultural show. During a tour of the exhibition stands, Sarkozy had been rebuffed by a man in the crowd who refused to shake the then President’s hand, saying he didn’t want to be “soiled” by the head of state.
Sarkozy’s pugnaciousness more than compensates for his lack of height. His immediate response, which was caught on video, was to end the exchange at the agricultural show using the now famous phrase, “Casse-toi pov'con!”
The phrase would subsequently dog Sarkozy right up to last year’s French presidential election and has now become so celebrated that it even has its very own entry on Wikipedia!
So, for as long as Eon remained convicted, it was acceptable for the French president to insult fellow citoyens but not vice versa. Revolutions have started over less.
But the balance of power between President and citizens was restored this week. Eon had exhausted appeals procedures in the French courts and took his case to the ECHR. The ECHR held that the French courts had violated the accused’s freedom of expression. BBC reports the European Court saying the penalty imposed had been "disproportionate" and that it violated Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which safeguards freedom of expression.
In a press release which accompanied the ECHR judgement the European judges said “while accepting that the phrase in issue, taken literally, was offensive to the French President,” The Court considered “that the applicant’s repetition of the phrase uttered by the President had not targeted the latter’s private life or honour; nor had it simply amounted to a gratuitous personal attack against him.”
On the satirical aspect of Eon’s protest, the Court went on to say, “ ... by echoing an abrupt phrase that had been used by the President himself and had attracted extensive media coverage and widespread public comment, much of it humorous in tone, Mr Eon had chosen to adopt a satirical approach. Since satire was a form of expression and comment that naturally aimed to provoke and agitate, any interference with the right to such expression had to be examined with particular care.”
France now has three months to decide whether it will appeal the judgement to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights.
Related article: Free Speech in UK: Rowan Atkinson and the right to insult people
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