The story of a 50-year-old French woman has been doing the rounds in France and gone viral on Twitter. Here's why...
The story of a 50-year-old French woman has been doing the rounds in France and gone viral on Twitter.
A woman in the North of France - who asked to be referred to by her first name Valerie - has been arrested at her home and taken to the police station.
So far, so run-of-the-mill.
The reason for her arrest? She insulted President Emmanuel Macron on social media over his decision to force the controversial pension reform that has sparked nationwide protests.
If you thought that was worrying and eroding freedom of speech, wait for this next bit.
According to regional French newspaper La Voix du Nord, the woman posted a picture of graffiti saying 'Macron Garbage' on Facebook. The graffiti was outside a waste disposal depot in nearby Arques, and she had simply “been photographed in front of it, smiling,” she said.
She then referred to Macron as "garbage" in another Facebook post, dated 21 March, as a way to draw a parallel with the binmen strikes:
“L’ordure va parler demain à 13 heures, pour les gens qui ne sont rien, c’est tjrs (sic) à la télé que l’on trouve les ordures" - “The garbage will speak tomorrow at 1 pm, for people who are nothing, it's always on television that we see this garbage,” she wrote, referring to an upcoming television address by Macron.
On Friday 24 March, Valerie was arrested at her house by three officers.
"I asked them if it was a joke, as I had never been arrested," she told the newspaper. "I am not public enemy number one."
She was then placed in police custody for questioning after the state's local administrative office filed a complaint over her Facebook post, the prosecutor in the northern town of Saint Omer, Mehdi Benbouzid, told AFP.
The complaint focused on the Facebook post made on 21 March, the day prior to Macron’s lunchtime interview on TF1 television to defend his pension reform.
Valerie admits to being the author of the words but defended herself by explaining that she wanted to be humorous by writing “l’or dur” ("hard gold"). The automatic spellchecker apparently changed the spelling.
"I did make this post but I wanted to make a pun and write "hard gold", the proof-check changed it and I didn't proofread it before sending. Besides, I don't even mention him."
She currently stands accused of "insulting the president of the republic" and will stand trial on 20 June in Saint Omer, the prosecutor said. She risks a prison sentence and a fine of €15,000 if convicted at the trial.
"I am an activist for social justice,” she told La Voix du Nord. “They want to make an example of me.”
Valerie, who is linked to the Yellow Vest movement that shook Macron during his first mandate, denies being a troublemaker: “This is totally unfair. We are going through a period when intimidation is strong, and activists are threatened.”
She admitted to sharing "a lot of videos of police violence or political violence”, but never with the goal of breaking any laws. “I often say what I think but always in respect of the law". She also stated that this will have no impact on her engagement with the protests and strikes: “We will continue to demonstrate and publish, but I will re-read myself more carefully."
The news of the woman’s arrest has triggered a widespread backlash on social networks across France, with the hashtag #MacronOrdure (#MacronGarbage) immediately trending.
French Politician François Ruffin denounced the trial, writing: “Soon the return of the crime against the crown?”
Other users also had their say:
“Crimes of lese-majesty – Return to the monarchy”
“Image of the defendants arriving in court after insulting #MacronOrdure on social networks”
“The hashtag #MacronOrdure is censored by twitter, let's bypass the censorship.”
"’STREISAND EFFECT’ #MacronOrdure is #1 in instant and #1 in trend on Twitter. It's a textbook case of the "Streisand effect": when trying to prevent the disclosure of information that one would like to hide leads to the opposite result.”
“If Macron is in a bin, can we call him garbage?”
As for the legality of what has happened to Valerie, French law does provide for penalties against those who attack the head of state.
Historically, there was the offence of insulting the head of state, a criminal offence which disappeared in 2013. This was a specific legal protection for the President, which was set out in Article 26 of the law of 29 July 1881. It provided for a fine of €45,000. This law no longer exists in 2023.
However, there are other tools within French law that can take over…
For example, the head of state can always defend himself in court against an insult, even when it is committed electronically.
In this case, a Facebook post that can be accessed via an Internet connection falls under Article 33 of the law of 29 July 1881 on the freedom of the press. Here, the penalty provided for by law can be up to €12,000.
Another piece of French legislation can also be employed: Article 433-5 of the Penal Code states that there exists the offence of contempt. This covers "words, gestures or threats, writings or images of any kind that are not made public or the sending of any object (...) that are of such a nature as to undermine the dignity or the respect due to the office with which the person is invested."
The initial penalty is a fine of €7,500 when the defamation is directed against a person entrusted with public service. If the insult is directed at a person holding public authority, the fine can go up to €15,000 and one year's imprisonment. The head of state falls into this category.
Even if the publication of the offending message was a private comment - since it was posted on a Facebook profile - posting on Facebook can amount to public writings and therefore fall under public insult.
Convictions for insults and contempt on Facebook are not uncommon. In 2015, for example, a criminal court sentenced a young man to four months in prison for insulting the police on Facebook. Similar cases also exist when the insults are directed at individuals.
An eye-opening reminder of the importance of privacy settings and the limits with regards to freedom of expression... In Valerie’s case, conviction is not certain, as the court can assess the circumstances surrounding the message, which was published in the context of a vast social movement against a widely rejected reform.
She certainly has won the support of many on social media, who are not only defending Valerie, but getting more creative with their insults, and standing in solidarity when it comes to freedom of expression.