Insult, negationism, violence… What do the perpetrators of anti-Semitic acts in France risk?

Insult, negationism, violence… What do the perpetrators of anti-Semitic acts in France risk?
Insult, negationism, violence… What do the perpetrators of anti-Semitic acts in France risk?

Prime Minister Gabriel Attal announced this Monday a 300% increase in anti-Semitic incidents in France in the first quarter of 2024 compared to that of 2023. A worrying resurgence, linked to the conflict in the Middle East, rekindled since the terrorist attacks of October 7. But what do the perpetrators of such acts actually risk? We take stock.

“366 anti-Semitic acts” in the space of three months. “No one can deny this anti-Semitic surge. No one can deny the fact that it is estimated that French Jews represent 1% of the French population, but that more than 60% of anti-religious acts are anti-Semitic acts,” declared the head of government, Gabriel Attal, in a speech this Monday during the 38th dinner of the Crif (Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France) in Paris.

Faced with this sharp increase, clearly linked to the conflict in the Middle East since the October 7 attacks perpetrated by Hamas terrorists, what is planned to condemn the perpetrators of anti-Semitic acts? In France, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 states in article 10 that “no one should be disturbed for their opinions, even religious ones”. Any act contravening this principle is therefore punishable by French law. However, we distinguish anti-Semitic remarks from anti-Semitic acts and violence.

The limits between freedom of expression and anti-Semitic remarks

To understand the limit between freedom of expression and anti-Semitic remarks, we must also focus on the law of 1881 which details the contours of freedom of expression in the law, because “no opinion, as long as it is not not expressed publicly, cannot be prosecuted”, as the government website reminds us. However, this is limited by two principles: comments can be condemnable from the moment they are public and relate to racism, anti-Semitism or even Islamophobia or anti-Catholicism.

Five types of public remarks defined by law are punishable: racist insult and racist defamation, provocation to discrimination, hatred and racist violence, the offense of apologizing for crimes and contesting the existence of one or more crimes against humanity. Note that neither blasphemy nor criticism of religion appears there.

From insult in the private context to the offense of apologizing for crimes and negationism

Insult in a private context, like non-public defamation, punishes its author with a fine of up to 750 euros. When the racist and anti-Semitic insult is public, it is an offense with a penalty of up to six months’ imprisonment and a fine of 22,500 euros. Public defamation can lead to a one-year prison sentence and a fine of 45,000 euros.

The remarks most often prosecuted in court are those which involve provocation of discrimination, hatred and racist violence. When this provocation is not public, it is punishable by a fine of up to 1,500 euros. When it is public, as was the case for the comments of the comedian Dieudonné in the 2000s, this provocation constitutes an offense punishable by one year of imprisonment and a fine of 45,000 euros.

Finally, a person who disputes the existence of one or more crimes against humanity, in particular the Shoah, faces one year of imprisonment and a fine of 45,000 euros. An aggravating circumstance, that of the dissemination of this apology via online means of communication, can lead to the sentence being up to seven years’ imprisonment and a fine of 100,000 euros.

Anti-Semitic acts, an aggravating circumstance in the Penal Code

The anti-Semitic character can be considered as an “aggravating circumstance” in any violent act defined by the Penal Code. This circumstance is retained by the courts when it motivates the perpetrator’s action. The law of January 23, 2003 provides for a list of offenses and crimes whose penalties are aggravated by the racist, anti-Semitic or xenophobic nature of the facts. This therefore concerns murder, torture and barbaric acts, involuntary manslaughter, violence resulting in mutilation or permanent disability, violence resulting in incapacity for work for eight days.

In the latter example, the acts are often punished by a sentence of three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 45,000 euros. If this act has a racist or anti-Semitic motivation, the perpetrator ultimately faces five years of imprisonment and a fine of 75,000 euros.

The penal code also provides that “the destruction, degradation or deterioration of property belonging to others” and the “destruction, degradation or deterioration of property belonging to others by the effect of an explosive substance, a fire or any other means likely to create a danger for people”, are also affected by these aggravating circumstances.

Prove an anti-Semitic act

However, it is sometimes difficult to prove that an act has anti-Semitic motivation. The law therefore indicates that the aggravating circumstance is constituted “when the offense is preceded, accompanied or followed by words, writings, images, objects or acts of any nature prejudicial to the honor or consideration of the victim due to its membership or non-membership, true or supposed, to a specific ethnic group, nation, race or religion.

Faced with the increase in anti-Semitic acts in recent months, “not an act must go unpunished, not an anti-Semite must have peace of mind”, affirmed the Prime Minister, Gabriel Attal, promising to “demonstrate exemplary firmness in every act”. Deploring that it is not possible to know precisely the number and convictions for acts committed because of religion, he announced that he had asked the Minister of Justice, Éric Dupond-Moretti, “to find the means to implement is carrying out a census of these cases and convictions throughout France.

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