The Law in France: Hooray! We Can Flip Off the President!
- Published on Wednesday, 31 July 2013 00:00
- Written by David Jaggard
Now the French Can Be
Rude to Everybody
Illustration by Charles Giai-Gischia. Visit his blog, Traits-Drôles, for a larger version and more drawings.
The celebrations went on for days. Paris was one huge party, with free Champagne in every café and spontaneous parades on every boulevard. The entire population, young and old, civilian and military, was out in the street at all hours, cheering their newly regained freedom and dancing ecstatically to the sound of jazz bands. Yes, the long-awaited moment had come at last: the law against insulting the president had been repealed!
Or was that the end of World War II? Whatever. But there really has been a change in the law, reported by Reuters on July 25: amending legislation originally enacted in 1881, the French parliament voted earlier this year to rescind a clause that made it a crime to commit any type of “offense to the head of state” in oral, written, pictorial or gestural form.
Note that “olfactory” did not make the list, probably because, given 19th-century hygiene standards, they figured they couldn’t arrest the entire country.
Thus shielded against (almost) any kind of affront, France’s presidents have proven to be quite a touchy, sensitive bunch over the years. My older friends here tell me that they remember people in the 1960s whispering, even in their own living rooms, if they had anything negative to say about Charles de Gaulle.
Of course, his critics could always pretend that they were talking about the airport instead of the president: “Charles de Gaulle has way too much baggage!” “Charles de Gaulle ought to be shut down!” “Charles de Gaulle is teaming with thieves!” etc. That was perfectly legal.
Perhaps significantly, the anti-insult act was not struck from the books because the legislators wanted to expand free speech, nor because they had just heard the “three kinds of orgasm” joke and were dying to tell it to President François Hollande, but merely to comply with a European Union decision on a specific case involving former President Nicolas Sarkozy.
There’s a whole story behind this. In 2008, Sarkozy was doing a flesh-pressing walkabout at the annual Salon de l’Agriculture when a potential pressee refused to shake his hand. The President of the Republic, always an eloquent defender of proper protocol and decorum, as befitted his station, responded promptly and decisively by telling the guy to bug off.
Of course, “bug off” (“insectez un oeuf!”) wasn’t exactly what he said. The four words that he selected to convey his statesmanlike judgment on the matter were “Casse-toi, pauvre con,” which Reuters translates as “Get lost, jerk.”
That rendering, however, loses some of the nuance of the phrase, which is considerably more vulgar and offensive than that, but at the same time nowhere near as vulgar and offensive as an actual idiomatic transliteration into English would be. For our purposes here, let’s just say that it means, “Hew thyself asunder, impoverished metaphor for female genitalia!”
However one translates it, Sarkozy became famous for the phrase. So famous that a few months later one of his detractors put the exact same words on a home-made banner, held it up as a protest at a public gathering where the president was present and got himself arrested.
It’s an interesting case: his crime was quoting the president verbatim, and his punishment was an unpleasant afternoon in a police station, a €30 fine and a criminal record. But later the European Court of Human Rights decided that this constituted a violation of the protestor’s freedom of speech, and it was that ruling that led to the repeal.
So now we can insult the president! But we can’t tell a sewer inspector he stinks. Or at least that’s the way I interpret another and much more widely enforced article from that same 1881 law, the “outrage” statute.
For Americans like me who grew up with the Bill of Rights, this little corner of the French civil code seems very odd indeed. The outrage (pronounced “oot-rrhazhe,” with the accent on “rrhazhe”) law specifies punishments for “words, gestures, threats, written texts or images of any type . . . addressed to a person charged with a public service mission . . . and that are of a nature to degrade that person’s dignity or the respect due to the function entrusted to him or her.”
The way the text is worded, one has to wonder who exactly is a “person charged with a public service mission”? Obviously the category includes elected officials, but does it extend to tax auditors? Postal clerks? Street sweepers?
One group that is definitely within the perimeter of protection is the police. In practice, outrage is most often invoked to give them something extra to charge suspects with, like the verbal equivalent of resisting arrest.
Of course, just about anyone being arrested for any crime can be charged with outrage in addition to larceny, battery, assaultery, peeping tommery or whatever they’ve allegedly committed, for three reasons: people tend to become kind of testy in those situations, any kind of injurious language is potentially actionable, and, unless someone is videoing the arrest on their phone, it comes down in court to a perp’s word against a cop’s.
Due to this last point, the testimony in outrage trials tends to be largely a matter of “he said/he said.” Or, to be precise, “he says he said/he says he didn’t say.” French court transcripts are full of passages like this:
Judge: As Officer Finepeau was wrestling you to the ground, did you or did you not call him a “%@¶#”?
Defendant: I did not! I called him a “≈√¢∞.”
Judge: The official report here says “%@¶#.”
Defendant: *¿≈$‡ !!!
Judge: That’s an outrage! Forty years in Devil’s Island!
Lawyer: I object, your honor! Devil’s Island Prison was closed in 1953.
Judge: Really? Well whaddaya know? I wonder where they’ve been putting all my other... Oh, never mind. A €30 fine, and Officer Finepeau gets to call the defendant an impoverished metaphor for female genitalia.
Policeman: I already have, your honor. Several times in the past 10 minutes.
Judge: Justice is served. Next case!
One of the most ridiculous instances of this law in action happened a few years ago when the former Minister of Justice Rachida Dati, now a member of the European Parliament, received an e-mail from a man in southern France asking her for “an inflation.”
Obviously, there’s a whole story behind this too. In 2010, Dati gave a television interview in which, referring to foreign investment funds, she wanted to say, “Some of them claim 20 to 25 percent profitability with near-zero inflation,” but what she actually said in the heat (if that’s the word) of the moment was, “Some of them claim 20 to 25 percent profitability with near-zero fellation.”
The gaffe was of course instantaneously plastered all over the media, bandied about the Internet and pounced upon by every wag, gag writer and stand-up comic in the country. And then about a month later the above-mentioned citizen wrote the above-mentioned e-mail.
So, naturally, Ms. Dati read the message, immediately saw that it was a stupid joke, deleted it and got back to work.
Oh wait — that’s what happened in the parallel universe where everything makes sense. Here on Earth, the guy got arrested, his home was searched, his computer was seized, he was held for 48 hours in the peauquai before being released under a restraining order and ultimately got slapped with a €100 fine.
I find this, in a word, outrageous. It implies that having her slip-up, which she herself laughed off at first, repeated in loops on every TV channel, radio station and social network for weeks on end did nothing to degrade Ms. Dati’s dignity, but that she was heinously, maliciously, irredeemably humiliated because she read an e-mail.
And then pressed charges, thus generating more media attention and giving the whole idiotic saga new momentum. If there was truly any real de-dignitization here, it didn’t stem from the offender’s writing the e-mail, it stemmed from his getting arrested for writing the e-mail. In other words, the poor schmuck’s real crime was being charged with a crime.
Personally, I think the EU Human Rights Court ought to retry that case as well and get France to throw out the whole outrage thing. The initiative would probably have to come from higher up — I doubt that Hollande would do it on his own. That %@¶#.
Reader Ronald Hurwitz writes: "I'll be particularly careful on my next visit to Paris. Wouldn't want to offend any sensitive public servants. I once chewed out a female clerk at a subway caisse – she refused to change a €20 bill for me so I could buy a carnet. Well, someone got even for me when they fired (presumably?) all the employees and closed all the caisses. Now I can fearlessly swear at the ticket machines with impunity until the cows come home."
Reader Barney Kirchhoff writes: "I'm glad to know that we can tell the president of France to 'get lost,' but there is a better all-purpose term available thanks to a German freebooter named Götz von Berlichingen, aka Götz of the Iron Hand.
"A feisty nobleman, minor despot and all-around fighting man, he roamed central Germany for some 50 years in the 16th century taking on all comers.
"In 1504, at the age of about 24, he lost his right arm in a battle. However, that didn't stop him. He got a first-rate mechnical iron prosthesis that could wield either a sword or a pen and built up his warrior reputation in combat with rivals and enemies in Cologne, Ulm, Augsburg, Bamberg and as far afield as Burgundy and Lorraine.
"He bought a castle in Neckarzimmern and died in bed in 1562 but left behind an account of his wars, feuds and depredations that Goethe, the grand old man of German letters, turned into a five-act play in 1773.
"One of the highlights of the play occurs when Götz is besieged in his castle, and the enemy commander sends an emissary with a white flag to ask Götz to surrender. Götz's immortal reply, at least according to Goethe: 'Er kann mich am Arsche lecken' or 'He can lick my ass.'
"The episode was regularly staged at summer festivals in Jagsthausen (near Heilbronn) and I believe still is. It always brings down the house.
"In the 1950s, when I was working on The Stars and Stripes, the daily newspaper of the U.S. armed forces in Europe, a German scholar picked up on this and compiled a little guide to international understanding, which listed the phrase in a shortened version (dropping the 'he can') in 55 languages, ranging from Albanian ('Llp ma bithin!') to Urdu ('Jahannum wasil ho').
"The French translation, as you no doubt know, is 'Baisez-moi le cul!,' which readers may want to memorize for the next surly French clerk, officious restaurant waitperson, honking motorist or arrogant bicyclist racing through a red light at night on an unlit bike. "However, I wouldn't use it for the president of France pending further court decisions.
"I was unable to find a copy of the list on the Web. Gotzen's Grober Gruss, a 1956 book containing it, is available but I don't think it was ever translated into English.
"No kiss needed for me but if you ever get to Manchuria and get bad service, tell them 'Minikondshuso be hiyabas.'
"On a further cultural footnote, around 1782 Mozart wrote a six-part canon using the phrase. However, it was only known in a bowderlized version until the original manuscript was found in a dusty archive in 1991. Sung by six voices as a three-part round, it was apparently a party piece that Mozart performed only for his friends in Vienna."
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