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France: Comedian Condemned for Hate Speech and Condoning Terrorism

(Mar. 26, 2015) The controversial French comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, known simply as Dieudonné, has been the subject of a recent prosecution for a statement condoning terrorism and of several prosecutions involving hate speech.

These cases were principally governed by the Law of July 29, 1881, on Freedom of the Press, which is considered one of France’s foundational laws in matters of freedom of speech. (Loi du 29 juillet 1881 sur la liberté de la presse, LEGIFRANCE.) This law, commonly known as the Law of 1881, was meant to both enshrine and set limits on freedom of the press and freedom of speech. It has been amended several times over the years, including in 1972, when provisions were added to prohibit hate speech, and most recently in 2014, when provisions were added to prohibit speech advocating or condoning terrorism. (Loi No. 72-546 du 1er juillet 1972 relative à la lutte contre le racism [Law No. 72-546 of July 1, 1972, Regarding the Fight Against Racism] LEGIFRANCE; Loi No. 2014-1353 du 13 novembre 2014 renforçant les dispositions relatives à la lute contre le terrorisme [Law No. 2014-1353 of November 13, 2014, Strengthening Provisions on the Fight Against Terrorism] LEGIFRANCE.)

Charge of Condoning Terrorism

On March 18, 2015, Dieudonné was found guilty of condoning terrorism by the criminal tribunal (tribunal correctionnel) of Paris. (Dieudonné Sentenced over Facebook Post on Charlie Hebdo Attack, FRANCE 24 (Mar. 18, 2015); “Charlie Coulibaly”: deux mois de prison avec sursis pour Dieudonné [“Charlie Coulibaly”: Two Months of Suspended Jail Time for Dieudonné], LE PARISIEN (Mar. 18, 2015].) In this case, Dieudonné was prosecuted after he posted a message saying “[k]now that tonight, as far as I am concerned, I feel like Charlie Coulibaly” on his Facebook page following a massive demonstration that occurred in the wake of terrorist attacks in and around Paris in January. (“Je me sens Charlie Coulibaly”: Dieudonné visé par une enquête pour apologie du terrorisme [“I Feel Like Charlie Coulibaly”: Dieudonné Investigated for Condoning Terrorism], FRANCE TV INFO (Jan. 12, 2015).) This phrase, which concludes a slightly longer statement in which he was mocking the demonstration, combined a reference to the “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) slogan that cropped up in support of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which was the target of a terrorist attack on January 7, 2015, and to Amedy Coulibaly, the name of a hostage taker who attacked a Parisian kosher supermarket two days later.

The prosecution had asked that Dieudonné be sentenced to paying 200 days’ worth of €150 (about US$160) “day fines” (jours amende, a penalty where the convict must either pay the fine or do jail time), but the court instead sentenced him to two months of suspended incarceration. (Chloé Pilorget-Rezzouk, “Charlie Coulibaly”: Dieudonné écope de prison avec sursis [“Charlie Coulibaly”: Dieudonné Gets Suspended Jail Sentence], EUROPE1 (Mar. 18, 2015).)

Inciting Racial Hatred Charges

Two days later, Dieudonné was also found guilty of “inciting racial hatred” in another case, for which he was sentenced to pay a fine of €22,500 (about US$24,400). (Dieudonné condamné à 22,500 euros d’amende pour ses propos contre Patrick Cohen [Dieudonné Sentenced to a 22,500 Euros Fine for Remarks Against Patrick Cohen], LIBERATION (Mar. 19, 2015).) In that case, the comedian had been prosecuted for anti-Semitic remarks he made during one of his shows. Specifically, Dieudonné made a joke about Patrick Cohen, a radio host who had been critical of him and who is Jewish, involving gas chambers and the Holocaust. (Id.)

A couple of weeks prior to that, a Parisian civil court ruled that sale of DVDs of the show in which Dieudonné made these remarks would be prohibited. (Pierre-Emmanuel Mesqui, Dieudonné: la justice interdit la vente du DVD de son spectacle [Dieudonné: Court Prohibits the Sale of DVDs of His Show], LE FIGARO (Mar. 4, 2015).) The court also ruled that Dieudonné would pay €5,000 (about US$5,400) in damages to the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, the advocacy group that initiated the suit to ban the DVD. (Id.) Last year, the live performance of the show depicted in the DVD was banned by local authorities in several cities around France (Dieudonné: interdiction de jouer le “Mur” à Paris aussi [Dieudonné Banned from Performing “The Wall” in Paris Too], LIBERATION (Jan. 10, 2014).) The Conseil d’Etat, France’s highest court for matters of administrative law, ruled that these bans were legally justified when it upheld the Prefect of Loire-Atlantique’s decision to prohibit the performance in his jurisdiction. (Conseil d’Etat, Jan. 9, 2014, No. 374508.)

Acquitted of Slander Charge

Dieudonné prevailed in another recent case, however. He was before the Paris criminal tribunal in March 2014 on charges of slander for having described Manuel Valls, then the French Minister of Interior, as a “half trisomic Mussolini” in August 2013. (Dieudonné relaxé après avoir qualifié Valls de “Mussolini moitié trisomique”[Dieudonné Acquitted After Having Described Valls as “Half Trisomic Mussolini”], FRANCE TV INFO (Mar. 24, 2015).) In a judgment of March 24, 2015, the court found that Dieudonné’s words were the expression of a political opinion and therefore were not illegal under French law. (Id.)

Contrast with Charlie Hebdo

These cases may be contrasted with legal action against the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, known for publishing provocative and often offensive caricatures. It appears that Charlie Hebdo was brought to court approximately 50 times between 1992 and 2014. (“Charlie Hebdo,” 22 ans de procès en tous genres [“Charlie Hebdo,” All Kinds of Lawsuits in 22 Years], LE MONDE (Jan. 8, 2015).) The magazine prevailed in the vast majority of cases, but was found guilty of defamation a handful of times. (Id.) While Charlie Hebdo has published caricatures of religious figures such as the Pope or Mohammed and has repeatedly been sued by various religious groups for hate speech, courts have invariably declined to find that these caricatures constituted hate speech. (Id.) This is because, while hate speech is illegal in France, blasphemy is not. Whereas mocking or criticizing a distinct people on the basis of their religious beliefs is considered hate speech, mocking or criticizing the beliefs themselves is permissible. (Damien Leloup & Samuel Laurent, “Charlie,” Dieudonné…: quelles limites à la liberté d’expression? [“Charlie,” Dieudonné…: What are the Limits to Freedom of Expression?], LE MONDE (Jan. 14, 2015).)