Crucial next stage of trials of French BDS activists gets underway
In December 2011, several BDS activists that were acquited of the charges against them relating to their involvement in BDS actions declared that freedom of speech had won out, and their lawyer hoped that the judgement would set a precendent in favour of campaigners. However, the so-called “National Bureau for Vigilance Against Antisemitism” (BNVCA) appealed the decision. On October 3, a court in Mulhouse, in the east of France, will hear the appeal.
Pro-Israel groups have been lobbying legislators in many Western countries for many years to procecute those who support the campaign for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel since 2009. It would be a serious defeat for those lobby groups if the court rejects their appeal.
The first trial against BDS activists was back in 2009. Alleging that she put stickers on products from Israel, the Carrefour supermarket filed charges against Sakina Arnaud for damaging products. Several pro-Israel associations also filed charges of “incitement to racial, national or religious discrimination”. During her 2010 trial, Sakina was supported by the Movement Against Racism and for Freindship Between Peoples and by the League of Human Rights, who called for the court not to conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism. Despite these appeals for reason, Sakina was found guilty of the discrimination charge and was sentenced to a fine of €1,000 and to pay €1 in damages to the plaintiffs. This judgement was later confirmed by two higher courts. Carefour’s case was rejected.
A few months after the original ruling against Sakina, pro-Israel National Assembly member Eric Raoult questioned then Minister of Justice Michèle Alliot-Marie about the BDS campaign. Denouncing “violent intrusions” in supermarkets, Raoult falsely asserted that BDS campaigners call for a boycott of kosher products. The justice minister corrected him, stating that the campaign targetted only Israel products, but reassured Raoult that any complaint would be dealth with by the courts.
Michèle Alliot-Marie went on to issue a document in the name of the French government calling on judges to systematically procecute all those who call for a boycott of Israel. The memo also demanded that judges who found BDS activist not guilty provide the Justice Ministry with the reasons for acquittal. The Union of Magistrates declared this a serious attack against the freedom of the judiciary. Yet Alliot-Marie remained unrepentent, linking BDS with anti-semitism and repeating the slander that BDS targets Kosher goods – despite having earlier refuted this – at the annual dinner of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF).
Throughout their campaign, the lobby groups targetting BDS campaigners have taken care only to target small groups and indiviudals, aiming to isloate campaigners. In 2010, a campaigner was prosecuted simply for posting on Facebook a video of boycott actions that took place during the 2008-09 Israeli attack on Gaza that had not led to any charges. The campaigner was originally convicted by won on appeal earlier this year.
Also in 2010, French Green party Senator Alima Boumediene-Thiery and Omar Slaouti, a leading member of the New Anticapitalist Party, were prosecuted. As with all of the other cases, the charges were filed by pro-Israel lobby groups. Following a huge solidarity mobilisation, the court decided not to judge the case, citing a legal flaw in the proceedure.
Towards the end of 2010, French public figures including Bernard-Henri Levy, the mayor of Paris and the now president of France François Hollande signed a text entitled “The boycott of Israel is a shameful weapon” that appeared in major French daily Le Monde. In an example of how attacks against BDS can be turned to the movement’s advantage, Le Monde was forced to publish a reply signed by leading Palestine solidarity campaigners.
The work of the pro-Israel lobby has also resulted in several rallies, conferences and debates about BDS being cancelled by the organisation that had provided the venue at the last minute. The Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France has welcomed this censorship, thanking a government minister for universities and research.
While 2010 was tough, 2011 was a year of relative breakthroughs. Olivia Zemor, president of the association EuroPalestine, and several activists of the solidarity movement were found not guilty on BDS related charges. Following a trial that lasted until midnight and hosted many public personalities as witnesses, the court established that: "When the call to boycott Israeli products is made by a citizen for political reasons and falls within the framework of a political debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that debate being a subject of general interest and with an international dimension, it does not constitute the offence of provocation to discrimination based on belonging to a nation".
This decision was also appealed, but the appeals court upheld the original verdict that calls for boycotts are a democratic right in a case in May of this year. However, Olivia Zemor was found guilty of a separate offence because comments made by the mayor of Al Masara - he compared buying Israel goods to buying bullets for the Israeli military - in a video that she had published on the website of her association was ruled as incitement to criticism. Disappointed that the court had still ruled calls for boycott to be legal, pro-Israel groups issued an appeal to the highest French court. The date of that appeal has yet to be set.
Two other acquittals in some similar cases were made during the following months. First, in December 2011, twelve BDS activists in Mulhouse were acquitted after a complaint by the National Bureau of Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism about a distribution of leaflets at the entrance of a store. The prosecution appealed, and this new trial will be held at the start of October 2012. On the other hand, in May 2012, while the prosecution had requested four months suspended sentence and €2,000 fine against four campaigners, they were acquitted by the high Court. Again, the prosecution appealed.
France remains the only country where activists have been summoned to court for simple BDS actions. If the three above-mentioned judgments are confirmed, it should logically make very difficult the legal activity of pro-Israeli circles, trying to criminalize those who fight against the occupation. If activists lose any of their appeals, appeals to higher courts can be made. The battle is not yet completely finished.