Laetitia Avia: French MP behind online hate speech law accused of 'racist' comments

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By Pauline Bock  with AFP
French Member of Parliament of the La Republique En Marche (LREM) party Laetitia Avia speaks during a session at the French National Assembly in Paris, on July 3, 2019.
French Member of Parliament of the La Republique En Marche (LREM) party Laetitia Avia speaks during a session at the French National Assembly in Paris, on July 3, 2019.   -  Copyright  STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP

A French MP behind the country's new online hate speech law has denied accusations of “sexist, racist and homophobic” comments.

Laetitia Avia, from President Emmanuel Macron's La République en Marche (LREM) party, repeatedly made inappropriate remarks at work, reported Mediapart, citing five former and current members of her staff as anonymous sources.

Avia has denied the allegations and said she would file a defamation claim. “We will file a complaint in the next week,” Avia’s lawyer Basile Ader told Euronews.

Ader added that his client's remarks had been “taken out of their context”.

The article cited several anonymous staff members of Avia’s team, who deemed her remarks racist, sexist or homophobic.

A screen-capture of the team’s private messages, published by Médiapart, showed a 2018 message from the MP reading: “We voted the fags’ amendment.”

Staff members also reported jokes on people’s physical appearance, on the clothes of political activists, as well as situations they described as harassment and humiliation.

“I have never been racist or homophobic,” Avia said on 12 May, in a series of tweets in which she denied the allegations. “On the contrary, the main reason for my political commitment has always been fighting racism and all discriminations.”

In the tweets, she apologised for using the expression “the fags’ amendment”, and offered an explanation.

“It’s an expression that my former collaborator used to describe the amendment on which we worked -- he is gay himself.

"I used his words in a message without thinking that it could be distorted. If this distortion hurt people and I am sorry.”

She said her private message had been “shortened, distorted and taken out of context” and described the article as “harassment”.

The article’s publication “on the eve of the vote on the online hate law” was “not a coincidence”, she added.

The French government's spokeswoman, Sibeth Ndiaye, expressed her support and said the article was based on "rumours".

"I pay tribute to [Laetitia Avia's] work in terms of fighting discrimination and fighting online hate speech on social media," Ndiaye added.

But on 14 May, Médiapart published audio which the media said “contradict” her defence and prove that some of her remarks deemed racist or homophobic “were not jokes uttered privately”.

On the recording, Avia is said to be speaking about wanting to improve her online reputation and saying that one of her staff members “is not the best on IT topics despite his origins” (the staff member is of Asian origin).

The controversy developed as the French parliament voted on 13 May on a law proposal put forward by Avia.

The online hate speech law will force platforms and search engines to remove prohibited content within 24 hours starting July 1.

As is the tradition in France, it will colloquially be known as “Law Avia”, from the name of the MP who put it forward.

Avia, a lawyer by training, has been active in the LREM party since its foundation by Emmanuel Macron in 2016.

Her work in the National Assembly, France's parliament, has focused on the fight against discrimination.