The erosion of free expression in France has been a persistent problem for many years, and President Emmanuel Macron is an important player in the fight to combat this trend. The French government has just taken yet another step in the wrong path by declaring its intention to prosecute three civilians who voiced their disapproval of the President by throwing him the middle finger during a public event. These persons were expressing their disagreement with the President in a public setting.
The action, which is referred to as “Le Doigt,” may now result in the persons being placed in “La Prison.”
People can be arrested in France for engaging in speech that, according to the country’s penal law, “affect[s] the personal dignity or the respect owed to a public official.” This is a very concerning restriction on people’s ability to express themselves politically, and it opens the possibility for selective prosecution.
Should they are proven guilty, the three demonstrators stand to receive a fine of up to 15,000 euros and a possible jail sentence of up to one year. Even while the President’s standing in the public eye continues to worsen, the administration is making an overt effort to instill a sense of respect for him through this measure.
In the Western world, France has been a pioneer in the trend toward pulling back free speech protections through the implementation of more stringent regulations. These laws make communication a criminal violation if it meets the hazy criteria of “inciting” or “intimidating” people on the basis of their race or religion. For example, the fashion designer John Galliano was found guilty in a French court of uttering anti-Semitic remarks to at least three people when he was in a Paris pub. These comments were directed at the individuals. At the time of Galliano’s sentence, Judge Anne Marie Sauteraud read aloud some of the offensive languages he had used, which included calling someone a “dirty whore.”
In a separate incident, the father of French right presidential contender Marine Le Pen received punishment for using the derogatory term “stinky” in reference to members of the Roma community. A French woman was brought to court because her kid attended school while wearing a shirt that stated, “I am a bomb.” In addition to this, a French adolescent was brought up on charges of referring to Islam as a “religion of hate.”
In spite of all of this, our government officials and a significant portion of the media were overjoyed when Macron called for a combined battle against “fake news” during his speech to Congress. He made the proclamation that “Democracy is about true choices and rational decisions.” The manipulation of information is an attempt to undermine the fundamental principles upon which our democracies are founded.
On the other hand, nothing screams “democracy” quite like locking up those who refuse to show you respect. This surge of anti-free speech sentiment has now reached our shores, and some people, such as Hillary Clinton, have even called on Europeans to censor Americans on social media if Twitter or other firms fail to do it themselves.
There have been many people, even members of Congress, who have contended, incorrectly, that our Constitution does not protect speech that promotes hatred. It is illegal to use one’s right to free speech in France by giving the middle finger to a public authority. In the same vein, speech that is prohibited because it is seen to be damaging or demeaning to a certain community must be silenced.
All of this is about encouraging virtuous morality while simultaneously penalizing bad behavior. The French were originally instructed by Maximilien Robespierre that “Terror is only justice: prompt, severe, and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue.”
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