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Freedom of expression is considered an essential freedom in France, but it was never understood to be absolute.  It is limited by, among other things, the right to privacy, the right to human dignity, and laws against defamation and insults.  There does not appear to be any legal protection against online harassment specifically for journalists in France, but there are laws against online harassment that can protect anyone, journalists included. Defamation and insults are prohibited by French law, although legislators have tried to find a balance between those prohibitions and freedom of speech.  Additionally, some common harassment methods such as “doxing” can be fought through legislation protecting the right to privacy.  Furthermore, the French Penal Code contains several provisions against harassment, including sexual harassment, threats, and malicious messages.  While some of these provisions apply to specific types of harassment, such as sexual harassment, a new article was added to the Penal Code in 2014 that addresses harassment in broader, more general terms.  There have been at least two reported cases over the last few years of law enforcement authorities investigating online harassment of journalists.  In one of these cases, two individuals were charged and found guilty under legislation prohibiting threats.

I. Introduction

Freedom of expression is considered an “essential freedom” in France.[1]  It is protected by the French Constitution, which incorporates the Declaration of Human and Civic Rights of 1789.[2]  Articles 10 and 11 of the Declaration protect freedoms of opinion and expression, describing the “free communication of ideas and of opinions” as “one of the most precious rights of man.”[3]  Similarly, the European Convention on Human Rights, by which France is bound, provides that “[e]veryone has the right to freedom of expression,” including “freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.”[4]

Freedom of speech was never understood to be absolute, however.  Indeed, the 1789 Declaration of Human and Civic Rights provided limits to freedom of expression in its very definition.  Article 10 declares that “[n]o one may be disturbed on account of his opinions, even religious ones, as long as the manifestation of such opinions does not interfere with the established Law and Order.”[5]  Article 11 provides that “[a]ny citizen may therefore speak, write and publish freely, except what is tantamount to the abuse of this liberty in the cases determined by Law.”[6]  Similarly, the European Convention on Human Rights declares that freedom of speech, “since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society.”[7]  The boundaries of free expression depend on several factors, but one of the main guideposts is a phrase from the 1789 Declaration of Human and Civic Rights defining freedom as “being able to do anything that does not harm others.”[8]  Consistent with that definition, freedom of speech in France is limited by the right to privacy, the presumption of innocence, the right to “human dignity,” and by rules prohibiting defamation and insult.[9]

There does not appear to be any legal protection from online harassment specifically for journalists in France.  However, French law contains several general protections against online harassment.  These include laws against defamation, insults, breaches of privacy, threats, malicious messages, and other harassing behavior. 

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II. Defamation and Insults

The Law of 29 July 1881 on Freedom of the Press, which is still in force (although it has been amended numerous times since its original adoption), prohibits defamation and insults, both written and verbal.  The Law of 29 July 1881 defines defamation as “any allegation or imputation of a fact which harms the honor or consideration of the person or group to which the fact is imputed.”[10]  The same provision defines insult as “any offensive expression, term of contempt, or invective which does not contain the imputation of any fact.”[11]  The legislators have tried to find a balance between freedom of speech and the prohibitions against defamation and insult.  Thus, speech may not be considered defamation if it can be shown to have been expressed in good faith, or if it is true – although the “exception of truth” is itself limited by the right to privacy, meaning that a true statement may still be considered defamatory if it concerns a person’s private life.[12]

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III. Privacy

A common means of online harassment is to broadcast private or personally identifiable information about the victim, such as her telephone number or email and home address.[13]  This practice, known as “doxing,” may constitute an infringement on the right to privacy, which is protected by the Penal Code,[14] the Civil Code,[15] and the European Convention on Human Rights.[16]  Article 226-1 of the Penal Code makes it illegal to intentionally broadcast, without the subject’s consent, words spoken in private or confidentially, or images of the subject in a private place.[17]  Such an act is punishable by a fine of up to €45,000 (approximately US$49,700) and up to one year in jail.[18]  Furthermore, article 226-4-1 of the Penal Code provides that using identifying information “for the purpose of disturbing [the victim’s] peace of mind . . .  or to damage his/her honor or respectability,” is punishable by up to one year of imprisonment and a fine of up to €15,000 (approximately US$16,600).[19]

Additionally, the practice of “doxing” may possibly run afoul of the French Penal Code’s prohibition on the misuse of personal data.  Indeed, using others’ personal data without respecting the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is punishable by up to five years in jail and a fine of up to €300,000 (approximately US$330,700).[20]  The same penalties apply to the offense of obtaining personal data via fraud or other illicit means,[21] as well as the offense of unauthorized sharing private or embarrassing personal data to a third party.[22]

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IV. Anti-Harassment Laws

A. Threats and Malicious Messages

Several provisions of the Penal Code deal with threats and harassment.  Article 222-16 prohibits harassment by email, text, or telephone messages.  Making repeated malicious telephone calls or sending repeated electronic messages of a malicious nature in order to disturb the victim’s peace of mind is punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of €15,000 (approximately US$16,600).[23]  Additionally, making threats against a person is illegal: threatening to commit a criminal offense against a person is punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to €7,500 (approximately US$8,300).[24]  Death threats are punishable by up to three years in jails and a fine of up to €45,000 (about US$49,600).[25]  If the threat was verbal, then it needs to have been made more than once to be punishable.[26]  If the threat was made in writing, or by means of a picture or an object (such as, for example, slipping a bullet in the victim’s mailbox), then it need only have been made once to be punishable.[27]

B. Sexual Harassment

The French Penal Code has included a section on sexual harassment since at least 1994, but it was initially aimed more towards workplace sexual harassment and abuse of authority.[28]  Over the years, however, the legal concept of sexual harassment was expanded so that it is now defined as “the act of repeatedly imposing on a person remarks or behavior that have a sexual or sexist connotation, that either cause harm to his/her dignity because of their degrading or humiliating nature, or create an intimidating, hostile or offensive situation against him/her.”[29]  While a single act is not enough to constitute sexual harassment, single acts committed successively by several perpetrators against the same victim qualifies as sexual harassment, even if each perpetrator only committed a single act.[30] 

The penalty for sexual harassment is two years in jail and a fine of up to €30,000 (about US$33,000), but this is increased to three years in jail and a fine of €45,000 (about US$49,600) if certain aggravating circumstances are present.[31]  These aggravating circumstances include when the victim is particularly vulnerable due to age, illness, injury, disability, or pregnancy; when the victim is economically or socially vulnerable; when the harassment was committed by several perpetrators; and when the harassment was committed online or through another electronic means of communication.[32]

C. General Harassment

In 2014, French legislators inserted a new article in the Penal Code to address harassment in general.[33]  This article defines harassment as “repeated remarks or behavior that have for purpose or for effect a deterioration of [the victim’s] living conditions leading to a change in his/her physical or mental health.”[34]  As is the case for sexual harassment, the remarks or behavior must be repeated, so a single act is not enough to constitute harassment.  However, also as with sexual harassment, single acts committed successively by several perpetrators against the same victim qualifies as harassment, even if each perpetrator only committed a single act.[35]  The penalty for harassment is one year in jail and a fine of up to €15,000 (about US$16,600), but some aggravating circumstances can increase the penalty to two years in jail and a fine of €30,000.[36]  These aggravating circumstances include when the harassment caused the victim to be completely unable to work for more than eight days; when the victim is particularly vulnerable due to age, illness, disability, or pregnancy; and when the harassment was committed online or through another electronic means of communication.[37]  If two aggravating circumstances exist, then the penalty is increased to three years in jail and a fine of €45,000 (approximately US$49,700).[38] 

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V. Notable Cases

A. Julie Hainaut

Julie Hainaut, a freelance journalist in the city of Lyon, received many insults and threats after she published an article alleging that the owners of a local bar had praised the colonial era.[39]  She was also the victim of “doxing,” following which she reported that strangers waited in front of her home twice.  Although it appears that she initially faced inaction on the part of law enforcement authorities, investigations were eventually opened for racially-based insults, racially-based defamation, and death threats.[40]  As of April 2018, this case was still under investigation.[41]

B. Nadia Daam

Nadia Daam, a journalist and radio broadcaster, became the victim of an intense harassment campaign after she had denounced members of an online forum for their harassment of two feminist activists.[42]  For a period of eight months, Daam was the target of pornographic postings, death threats, threats of rape, and hate speech.[43]  Her employer, the radio station Europe 1, filed a complaint with the police and an investigation led to the identification of seven perpetrators.[44]  Two perpetrators were tried in court, one on charges of making death threats, and the other on charges of threatening to commit rape.  In July 2018, both were given six-month suspended prison sentences and fined €2,000 (approximately US$2,200).[45]

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Nicolas Boring
Foreign Law Specialist
September 2019


[1] Xavier Dupré de Boulois, Droit des libertés fondamentales 360 (2018).

[2] Constitution du 4 octobre 1958, Preambule, https://perma.cc/95S6-F4KX.

[3] Déclaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen de 1789, art. 11, https://perma.cc/G3K5-CBGQ.

[4] European Convention on Human Rights, art. 10, Apr. 11, 1950, E.T.S. 005, https://perma.cc/BFR2-WU6M.

[5] Déclaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen de 1789, art. 10.

[6] Id. art. 11.

[7] European Convention on Human Rights, art. 10.

[8] Déclaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen de 1789, art. 4.

[9] Patrick Wachsmann, La liberté d’expression, in Libertés et droits fondamentaux 496, 497 (Rémy Cabrillac ed., 2013), bibliographical reference at https://lccn.loc.gov/2013479325, ; Dupré de Boulois, supra note 1, at 363-66.

[10] Loi du 29 juillet 1881 sur la liberté de la presse, art. 29, https://perma.cc/SG4X-A4LJ.

[11] Id.

[12] Wachsmann, supra note 9, at 498-99.

[13] Jonathan McCully, Legal Responses to Online Harassment and Abuse of Journalists: Perspectives from Finland, France and Ireland 6 (OSCE & International Press Institute, Mar. 7, 2019), https://perma.cc/GR9R-S2SD.

[14] Code pénal, arts. 226-1 to 226-2-1, https://perma.cc/JX4B-9H8Q.

[15] Code civil, art. 9, https://perma.cc/R2SB-TZJN.

[16] European Convention on Human Rights, art. 8.

[17] C. pénal, art. 226-1.

[18] Id.

[19] Id. art. 226-4-1.

[20] Id. arts. 226-16 & 226-17.

[21] Id. art. 226-18.

[22] Id. art. 226-22.

[23] Id. art. 222-16.

[24] Id. art. 222-17.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] C. pénal, art. 222-33 (March 1, 1994 to June 18, 1998), https://perma.cc/LZH2-SBTB.

[29] C. pénal, art. 222-33 (current).

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] Loi n° 2014-873 du 4 août 2014 pour l'égalité réelle entre les femmes et les hommes, Aug. 4, 2014, art. 41, https://perma.cc/7VVP-SC8N.

[34] C. pénal, art. 222-33-2-2.

[35] Id.

[36] Id.

[37] Id.

[38] Id.

[39] Council of Europe, Réponse à une alerte concernant la France sur la plateforme pour la protection et la sécurité des journalistes (July 18, 2018), https://perma.cc/4RBK-QD7G.

[40] Id.

[41] Dalya Daoud, Le cyberharcèlement est aussi violent qu’un coup de poing, Rue89Lyon (Apr. 4, 2018), https://perma.cc/54Q3-5QBW.

[42] McCully, supra note 13, at 22.

[43] Id.

[44] Id.

[45] Id. at 23.

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Last Updated: 12/30/2020