Yes, it really was a crime in France to insult the president until this week. Here’s why.

July 26, 2013

Then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy moves through a crowd in Paris. (Francois Durand/Getty Images)

Way back in 1881, not long after the Second French Empire had collapsed from a humiliating defeat against Prussia, the largely powerless president of France was a man named Jules Grèvy and he was being insulted. So the National Assembly, perhaps fearing the instability that had led Grèvy's two predecessors to resign or perhaps just looking to help him out, passed a law making it illegal to insult the president. That year, a citizen named Simon Boubée became the first person prosecuted under the law, for calling Grèvy a "voyou profanateur," which roughly translates to "profane thug." Boubée had also called the president a "goujat iconoclaste," or an iconoclastic boor.

Now, after 132 years, 20 presidents, one Vichy Marshal and five provisional heads of state later, a left-activist named Hervé Eon will be the last Frenchman to ever violate the law, which the French Parliament finally overturned on Thursday after a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights. Eon had been fined 30 euros for holding up a cardboard sign at a 2008 rally that told then-President Nicolas Sarkozy "Casse-toi pov'con." The expression literally translates to "break yourself off, poor jerk" but has a more colloquial meaning that is a profane (and unprintable) way of telling someone to go away.

That small cardboard sign and the five-year international legal fight over it might seem like just a bizarre little twist in obscure French law, an overdue scrapping of arcane legal detritus not unlike, say, the Connecticut law that makes it illegal to cross the street by walking on your hands. But the law's history is actually a bit more complicated than that, a legacy of not just 19th century French politics but of a period of turmoil that is much more recent, and more violent, than many Americans realize.

When Eon appealed his conviction, first through the French courts, which all confirmed his sentence, and then to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in his favor, he was overturning more than a 30 euro fine. His sentence, though it included no jail time, was technically a criminal conviction. While Eon had only been slapped on the wrist, that same law had previously been used to to sentence presidential critics to up to a year in jail, fine them the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars and even to strip them of their right to vote. And this happened not a century ago but within Eon's own lifetime.

Between 1881 and 1958, the law against presidential insults was used only nine times. Then, in May 1958, France devolved into a political crisis so severe that, to hear it described now, it sounds more like something out of the Middle East or the most troubled regions of sub-Saharan Africa than Western Europe. The crisis and the decade following it led to heightened curbs on free speech, including aggressive criminal prosecutions for insulting the president.

By 1958, France had been at war for four years in Algeria – technically a civil war, as Paris considered this North African country a part of France – and it was going badly. Some politicians were wondering if the military shouldn't pull out altogether, as they had in Vietnam a few years earlier. The military leadership, dominated by right-wing nationalists who saw the Algerian war as a point of national honor after the defeats of World War II, insisted that France stay at any cost. When it looked as if they might be overruled, a group of French generals in Algeria overthrew the civilian government there, landed troops on Corsica and announced that they would soon invade mainland France and march to Paris to seize power. Mere hours before the planned assault, France's civilian president announced he would meet the military's demands by ceding power to the former military leader and national hero Charles de Gaulle, who promptly dissolved the constitution.

De Gaulle's 10-year reign saw more attempted military coups, mass unrest, assassination attempts by officers with his own military and a difficult effort to end the war, which he did in 1962 when Algeria finally won independence. Perhaps in response to the threats he faced or perhaps out of the paranoia that such instability can sometimes breed, de Gaulle did lean in the direction of authoritarianism. And this included frequently convicting people under the previously obscure law against presidential insults.

According to an outraged Time magazine article from 1968, de Gaulle's government convicted 350 people for insulting the president in just nine years, deploying it "as a powerful weapon against his critics." The targets were typically writers or journalists who called him names – one was sentenced for labeling him a "liar." A 93-year-old former cabinet minister was found guilty merely for writing that de Gaulle had ordered attacks on French Vichy forces in Africa during World War II, which historians consider an accurate charge. One publication was indicted merely for listing, in an article that did not directly mention de Gaulle, the symptoms of paranoia.

One of the law's fiercest critics during the de Gaulle years was a young socialist activist named Francois Mitterend, who would go on to be the French president from 1981 to 1995. In the 1968 Time article, Mitterend is quoted as calling the rule "a law of oppression" and pledging to work toward its appeal. He never succeeded and, though as president he pledged never to use the law, he didn't bother attempting to repeal it. Perhaps, like much of the turmoil in France during the 1960s, he'd hoped not to rehash it all.

It's not clear why Sarkozy's government dug back into the law in 2008 over the cardboard sign, which repeated a slur Sarkozy himself had used just a few months earlier. But the effect, likely unintentional, has been to finally end a law whose history and execution were not as frivolous as Americans might presume.

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Max Fisher · July 26, 2013