Thin-skinned Sarko's revenge on those who dare mock him


LÈSE-MAJESTÉ: “Any crime or offence against the sovereign power in a state, or the dignity of the sovereign” (Webster’s dictionary). Has France reinstated a crime last punished under the ancien régime? You might think so, judging by a court case in Marseilles this week.

The prosecution demanded a €100 fine for Patrick L, a philosophy teacher who playfully taunted two policemen with the words, “Sarkozy, I see you!”

It was rush hour on the afternoon of February 27th, 2008, when Patrick L saw two cops checking the identity papers of youths in the Saint-Charles train station. In his written deposition, the accused wrote: “I take a theatrical pose and point my finger at the policemen, saying, ‘Sarkozy, I see you. Sarkozy, I see you.’ Passers-by burst into laughter. I’m wearing a suit and tie and carrying a leather satchel. I must look ridiculous, but it doesn’t matter. The laughter lowers the level of tension.”

The cops took Patrick L to the commissariat. He apologised to them, went home and forgot about the incident. Fifteen months later he received a summons to appear in court for “noise and disturbing the peace”. Noting that police said the “disturbance” lasted five minutes, the prosecutor claimed the accused must have repeated “Sarkozy, I see you” 60 times.

Patrick L’s lawyer said the police were angry to be the butt of public laughter, and added that “pronouncing the name of the president of the Republic is not an insult”.

The case is one of more than a half-dozen that have raised concerns for freedom of speech under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy. An editorial in Libérationnewspaper said it exemplified “the climate of haughty and petty authority that reigns within the state apparatus”.

The verdict in the Patrick L case will be handed down on July 3rd. In 2004, when Sarkozy was still interior minister, two men served one-month prison sentences, one for saying, “Sarkozy, go f**k your mother,” the other for saying “Go back to China, dirty Hungarian.”

In 2006, a 19 year-old was sentenced to four months in prison for saying “F**k Sarko, the son of a bitch.”

Last October, a prosecutor demanded a €1,000 fine for Hervé Eon, a 56-year-old left-wing political activist who held up a placard saying “Get lost, asshole” when Sarkozy’s car drove past him on a visit to the provinces. The words were Sarkozy’s own, spoken in anger to a man who refused to shake his hand at an agriculture fair.

Under an 1881 law punishing “offence to the presidential function”, Eon was fined €30.

In a recent report on police brutality, the human rights group Amnesty International noted that to intimidate those they’ve mistreated, French police often charge them with outrage(insulting a person invested with public authority). The number of people charged annually with outragehas risen from 17,700 in 1996 to 31,726 last year.

Codedo, an association that calls for the abolition of the offence of outrage, was founded in July 2008. Its leader, Romain Dunant, was fined €200 for comparing Sarkozy’s policies as interior minister to those of the collaborationist Vichy government in an e-mail.