France’s Law of 29 July 1881 on the Freedom of the Press establishes the following “delicts”, or criminal wrongs.
Defamation (Art. 32), defined as any allegation or accusation of a fact that causes an attack on the honour or consideration of a person. When directed at private persons, defamation is punishable with a fine of €12,000.
Insult (Art. 33), defined as “any offensive expression, scornful word, or invective that does not contain the accusation of a fact”. The penalty is a fine of €12,000.
The French Criminal Code also establishes two related “contraventions”, or petty offences, related to private acts. Art. R621-1 punishes “non-public defamation toward a person” with a fine of the first degree. Art. R621-2 also punishes “unprovoked” non-public insult toward a person” with a fine of the first degree.
Public prosecution can normally only be undertaken upon request of the offended party. The only exception to this is defamation based on group characteristic, which may be undertaken at the prosecutor’s own initiative (Art. 48). All complainants also have the right to initiate a private criminal prosecution. The Constitutional Council recently extended this right to public bodies and members of government.
Under Art. 32 of the Law on Freedom of the Press, defamation directed against a class of people based on their race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation or handicap is punishable by one year in prison and/or a fine of €45,000; in the case of insult, the punishment is six months in prison and a fine of €22,500.
Criminal Defamation of Public Officials
When criminal defamation is committed against public officials, the maximum fine increases to €45,000. The list of officials includes the French president, ministers, legislators, and ministers of religions subsidised by the state (Law of 29 July 1881 on the Freedom of the Press Arts. 30-31).
In addition, the French Criminal Code punishes non-public grave insult (outrage) in the form of words, gestures, threats, writings or images of any kind against a person invested with a public-service mission with a fine of up to €7,500. In certain, specific cases outlined by the law, outrage may also be punished with imprisonment of up to one year.
Criminal Defamation of the Head of State
In 2013, France abolished Art. 26 of the Law of 29 July 1881 on the Freedom of the Press, which had criminalised offence toward the French president. However, it should be noted that, at the same time, the French president was added to the list of public officials receiving increased protection from defamation (see under “Criminal defamation of public officials”).
Criminal Defamation of the State and its Symbols
Criminal Defamation of Foreign Heads of State
Insult (outrage) committed against ambassadors or other official representatives of foreign countries in France is punishable with a fine of up to €45,000 (Law of 29 July 1881 on the Freedom of the Press Art. 37).
Criminal Defamation of Foreign States and Symbols
Criminal Defamation of the Deceased
Art. 34 of the Law of 29 July 1881 on the Freedom of the Press states that no charges can be brought for defamation or insult against the dead unless the offender “intended to attack the honour or the consideration of their descendants, spouses, or legal heirs”.
Previously, blasphemy was a criminal offence in France only in the region of Alsace-Moselle (départments Haut-Rhin, Bas-Rhin, and Moselle). The relevant provisions were repealed in October 2016.
Criminal Defamation and Media
In 2006, the Paris Court of Appeals convicted an editor and a journalist at the magazine Paris Match of criminal defamation after printing an interview with a former insurance executive, François Marland, who implicated another businessman, Jean-François Henin, in a Franco-Californian insurance fraud scandal known as the Executive Life affair. Marland was convicted along with the two journalists. The appeals court ruled that the three defendants could not plead justification because Marland’s revelations appeared objectively motivated by a desire for revenge, thus failing the malice stage of the test. The parties appealed the verdict to the Criminal Chamber of the French Court of Cassation, arguing, among other things, that the public’s right to know (the “legitimate aim” in this case) supported the publication of the article in question, even if “the witness [Marland] implicated a third person in a fraudulent financial transaction for personal reasons”. In 2008, the Court of Cassation reversed the verdict, ruling that the appeals court had failed to take into account the totality of circumstances surrounding the publication. According to the Court, “Considering that the incriminating article concerns a subject of general interest relating to a fraudulent transaction by a banking arm of a foreign insurance company in which the French state had a financial interest”, the publication “did not overstep the limits of free expression in the sense of Art. 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights”.
Defamation cases ending in criminal fines, in addition to orders for civil compensation, are not altogether uncommon in France. For example:
• In October 2014, an appeals court upheld a lower court ruling ordering three journalists with the television station France 3 Roussillon to pay criminal fines in the amount of €1,000, €1,000 and €500, respectively, for defaming the former mayor of the town of Barcarès .
• In September 2016, an appeals court upheld a lower court ruling ordering a journalist and an editor from the magazine Marianne to pay criminal fines in the amount of €500 and €1,000, respectively, for defaming a university professor in an article related to genetically modified crops .
• In March 2014, an editor and two journalists at Paris Match were sentenced to pay criminal fines (€1,000 and €1,500 each, respectively) as well as €1 in symbolic damages to Teodorin Obiang (Jr.), son of the long-serving dictator of Equatorial Guinea. and €2,000 to cover the latter’s legal costs. The charges related to a 2012 article in which the magazine reported that Obiang Jr. had been indicted on drug trafficking charges in the United States but that the scandal had been “quickly snuffed out” (“mais le scandale est vite étouffé”). The conviction was restricted to that single sentence, reportedly because it was based on a rumour; other impugned phrases in the article were deemed not to be libellous .
In September 2011, a court rejected a criminal defamation case brought by Equatorial Guinean dictator Teodoro Obiang (Sr.) against the French charity Catholic Committee against Hunger and for Development (CCFD, Comité catholique contre la faim et pour le développement). The case related to a 2009 CCFD report called “Ill-gotten gains: Who profits from crime?” (“Biens mal acquis: à qui profite le crime?”), which alleged that Obiang’s estimated $700 million fortune had been acquired by siphoning off the country’s oil revenue. The chapter also included accusations of money laundering via real estate in France and Spain. CCFD’s cited an array of sources to support its claims, including, among others, academic studies, numerous investigative reports by NGOs and media outlets, and the results of a 2004 corruption inquiry by the United States Senate. Obiang requested that the relevant passages be stricken from public view and that the charity be forced to run a court order on its home page entitled “CCFD Convicted” for a minimum of 90 days. He also demanded symbolic damages in the amount of €1 (a common request in French libel cases). The Paris Court of First Instance, however, ruled that CCFD had published the impugned material in good faith. Significantly, the court determined that the criteria for evaluating good-faith reporting were to be less strictly applied when the speaker is not a professional journalist, and that “even more tolerance” is required when evaluating expressions made by activist groups. On the basis of this flexible understanding, the court ruled that CCFD’s reliance on trustworthy and well-documented sources sufficiently met the demand of a “serious investigation”, even if the organisation – as stressed by Obiang Sr.’s lawyers – had done no independent research of its own .
In 2013, the ECtHR ruled that France had violated Art. 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights after a French citizen was fined €30 for violating Art. 26 of the Law on Freedom of the Press, which prohibits offence toward the French president. The defendant, Hervé Eon, was convicted for holding up a sign reading “Get lost, you prat” during a visit by then-President Nicholas Sarkozy – an allusion to Sarkozy’s use of a similar phrase when confronted by a man who refused to shake Sarkozy’s hand. The Court found that prosecutions under Art. 26 were “likely to have a chilling effect on satirical forms of expression relating to topical issues”.
In 2014, a French Muslim legal-defence group filed criminal blasphemy charges against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo over a 2013 front page that read “The Koran is shit”. The charges were filed in Strasbourg under the Alsace-Moselle blasphemy provisions . Those provisions were repealed in October 2016 (see under “Recent legal changes”).
Recent Legal Changes
French defamation law has undergone some notable changes over the past 15 years, much of which was prompted by rulings of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).
Nearly all prison sentences for defamation and insult were removed in 2000; only defamation and insult on account of race or other group characteristic remain punishable with imprisonment (one year and six months, respectively).
In 2013, the ECtHR ruled that France had violated Art. 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights after a French citizen was fined €30 for violating Art. 26 of the Law on Freedom of the Press, which prohibits offence toward the French president. The defendant, Hervé Eon, as was already noted above, was convicted for holding up a sign reading “Get lost, you prat” during a visit by then-President Nicholas Sarkozy – an allusion to Sarkozy’s use of a similar phrase when confronted by a man who refused to shake Sarkozy’s hand. The Court found that prosecutions under Art. 26 were “likely to have a chilling effect on satirical forms of expression relating to topical issues”. The article was abolished in 2013 in a move widely reported to have decriminalised insult toward the French president. However, the Law on Freedom of the Press was in fact modified to include the French president in the list of public officials receiving increased protection from defamation under Arts. 30-31.
In 2011, France’s Constitutional Council (Conseil constitutionnel) ruled that an exception to the defence of truth contained in the Law on Freedom of the Press for matters more than 10 years old was unconstitutional. In 2013, the Constitutional Council threw out another exception to the defence of truth, for matters relating to a person’s pardoned or expunged criminal record. The Council’s decision followed a 2007 Council of Europe Parliamentary Resolution in which France was specifically urged to modify its truth defence.
In October 2016, the France abolished criminal blasphemy laws in the region of Alsace-Moselle (départments Haut-Rhin, Bas-Rhin, and Moselle). These provisions had been the only remaining blasphemy laws in France. Their peculiarity stemmed from the preservation of laws enacted when the region was under German control. Art. 166 of the local criminal code (droit local) provided that whoever commits “public blasphemy against God” or “publicly offended one of the Christian religions” or other established religious community was to be punished with up to three years in prison . The repeal took effect on 27 January 2017 .
Notes and Acknowledgements
Information for France was originally collected by IPI as part of the “Out of Balance” report, published in January 2015 with support from the European Commission and incorporating research contributed by Center for Media, Data and Society at Central European University in Budapest and by the SHARE Foundation in Belgrade. This entry was later expanded and updated by IPI as part of a study commissioned by the Office of the Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
A fully footnoted version of this entry is available in the OSCE study. This entry was last updated in March 2017.
The information contained in this database is for informational and advocacy purposes only. If you are a journalist facing a defamation claim, you should seek legal advice from a qualified attorney. However, if you are unable to find such an attorney, IPI may be able to assist you in doing so. Please contact us at info(at)ipi.media.