A former far-right candidate in France’s recent municipal elections who likened the nation’s justice minister, who identifies as black, to a monkey was sentenced to nine months in jail for hate speech.
The National Front, a party that has often come under fire for its leaders’ incendiary comments about the nation’s immigrant populations, was fined almost $68,000 and the candidate, Anne-Sophie Leclere, was fined more than $40,000 on top of her prison sentence.
In October 2013, Leclere, the National Front’s candidate for the northern municipality of Rethel in March’s elections, posted a photo of Socialist Justice Minister Christiane Taubira — originally from French Guiana, a French overseas department in northern South America — next to a photo of a monkey. Laws in France bar communication intended to incite hatred, harm or discrimination against anyone because of ethnic, national or sexual identity or handicap.
“I prefer to see her swinging in a tree than to see her in government,” Leclere told TV channel France-2 in an interview, echoed across French media.
In a more recent, similarly explosive remark, the party’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, father of the party’s current leader, Marine Le Pen, said in May the Ebola virus could solve the world’s “demographic explosion” and Europe’s “immigration problem.” Many of France’s immigrants are from its former colonies in Africa, the only continent where Ebola has been reported.
National Front spokeswoman Huguette Fatna, originally from Martinique and the party’s former political consultant on its few remaining colonial-era territories, called the ruling an attack on free expression.
“We have no freedom of speech here. We call ourselves democratic — we should have freedom of speech,” Fatna said.
She added that the National Front will appeal the ruling. The party ousted Leclere immediately after a scandal erupted over her comments, apologizing on her behalf, but Fatna said Leclere’s prison sentence was “excessive.”
The case has in recent months sparked debate over France’s laws against racist speech. Despite Leclere’s comments, in April the National Front received its largest share of municipal votes ever.
Gabe Rottman, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said that when racist views are silenced by law, they sometimes grow in strength.
"There is a concern that unless the speech is legitimately incitement [to violence], when the government shuts them down, it gives them more credence to what they are saying. And it forces that stuff underground, where it can turn violent," Rottman said.
Houria Bouteldja, spokeswoman for the anti-racist political movement Les Indigenes de la Republique — The Indigenous of the Republic — and a leading voice on the rights of France's people of color, also said the law does not work to effectively combat racism in a country where, for some, it has become a political platform.
“There are people that are against the expression of the extreme right,” Bouteldja said. “But we also have the racism of the left.”
Charlie Hebdo, a weekly leftist publication, has on numerous occasions printed cartoons that French Muslims like Bouteldja have decried as Islamophobic. No formal legal battle was launched against the publication, though, and the nation's Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius, although he decried the publication as imprudent for stirring unrest in the Muslim world, qualified the cartoons as being protected by "freedom of speech."
“I say, allow free speech or censor racism on both sides,” Bouteldja said.
Rottman said the United States does not have laws against racist speech precisely because they are often arbitrarily enforced.
"One of the reasons we don’t have inciting-hatred laws like we see in other countries is these laws leave it up to government as to what constitutes hate speech — they are subject to arbitrary use and potential misuse."
Although Bouteldja’s organization applauds the ruling that punishes Leclere’s racist remarks, she emphasized that Taubira’s government has upheld laws barring women from wearing Muslim head coverings in schools and women from wearing facial veils in public venues.
“This xenophobia — it’s a production of the French state, not just the extreme right. This Islamophobia — the laws against Islamic dress, they are upheld by the government of Ms. Taubira.”
Bouteldja said that combating racism will take more than laws, that it will take a “mobilization of society against the racism of the state."
“There needs to be a political consciousness of identifying the victims of racism and forbidding it. In the ’30s, it was the Jews. Now it’s the blacks, the Muslims and the Roma.”