Sat, Dec 25, 2004 - Page 6 News List

French hate speech law stirs debate

CONTROVERSY Gay rights and feminist groups applauded a new law that will punish those who insult homosexuals or women. But free speech advocates expressed concern

THE GUARDIAN , PARIS

The French parliament on Thursday definitively adopted legislation that could lead to year-long jail terms for anyone found guilty of insulting homosexuals or women.

The justice minister, Dominique Perben, believes the laws are necessary to combat an increase in homophobia, but they have been condemned by advocates of free speech who say they are too strict and unworkable.

The law puts anti-gay and sexist comments on an equal footing with racist or anti-semitic insults, allowing French courts to hand down fines of up to 45,000 euros and jail sentences of up to 12 months for "defamation or incitement to discrimination, hatred or violence on the grounds of a person's sex or sexual orientation."

Proferring an anti-gay insult, including any remark "of a more general nature tending to denigrate homosexuals as a whole," in public -- meaning on air, in print or at a public meeting -- is also an imprisonable offence, while private sexist or homophobic taunts between individuals could incur fines of up to 375 euros.

Gay and feminist groups have welcomed the law, which is in part a response to a significant increase in verbal and physical attacks recorded against homosexuals in France.

The number of violent acts against gays doubled to 86 last year.

"It's great and welcome news," said Ronan Rosec of the campaign group SOS Homophobie.

"Gays in France just do not want to be abused, physically or verbally, any more."

Another gay rights organization, Inter-LGBT, said the law marked "the crossing of a decisive bridge" for France.

The feminist group Les Chiennes de Garde, or Guard Bitches, added that it hoped the law would lead to a fall in the number of physical attacks on women "by first outlawing verbal violence."

But the legislation, which also establishes an impartial body, the High Authority against Discrimination and for Equality, to help victims of bias, has drawn as much criticism as praise, particularly from advocates of free speech who say it will be difficult to enforce and will lead to self-censorship.

In theory, critics say, the law could mean that devout Christians who denounce homosexuality as "deviant" would be prosecuted; comedians can no longer make mother-in-law jokes; the producers and distributors of the camp comedy film La Cage Aux Folles could end up in the dock; and parts of the Old Testament might be banned.

The media campaign group Reporters Without Borders said that a society "advances towards tolerance ... via freedom of expression and debate, and not through repression."

The Catholic church in France also expressed concern that the law might prevent clergymen from expressing their opposition to legalizing gay marriage.

Even the national commission on human rights, a government advisory body, has criticized the law, arguing that courts "will face great difficulty defining what is an insult, and will thus have to condemn words ... certain films, books and even the Bible could fall under its remit."

The Book of Leviticus, for example, describes male homosexuality as "an abomination."

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