Saturday, April 24, 2010

Flag Desecration and Freedom of Speech.

From a European perspective, the presence of US flags in front of people's houses is a distinct feature of the American experience. Flags are usually not so proudly put on houses in Europe.

Blame it on a history of dangerous nationalism or on cultural differences, the fact is that Americans tend to be much more outspoken about their patriotism then the Europeans.
So it makes sense that the desecration of the US flag should have serious consequences and be considered a serious crime in the US (see here or here). There is even a United-States Flag Code which gives a set of rules as to the Dos and Donts of how to handle the flag.

France in particular has always had an ambiguous uneasy relationship with its flag which has been associated with far-right extremists who have used it for their agenda. (think of the FĂȘte des Bleu-Blanc-Rouge for instance). The current French president decided to re-claim the flag and other symbols of the Republic, probably because he thinks it is important but also because it pleases his right-wing electorate. In the meantime, the booing of the national anthem at a few soccer games caused outrage and led to the passing of a law that makes it a criminal offense to insult the French flag or national anthem in public, (up to 7,500 euros and 6 months in prison) in 2003, when Sarkozy was Minister of the Interior0

Well, this week, things went one step further when this photograph of a man wiping his butt with the French flag won a prize at an exhibit in the “politically incorrect” category. The picture was shown oat the exhibition organized in Nice by FNAC, the French book and music store giant and then by the free newspaper Metro.

The picture may be of a very bad taste, (well, that may be the point) and apparently, France’s Minister of Justice Michele Alliot-Marie did not like. That's her own right, but for her to demand the “criminal prosecution” of its authors is even more scandalous and over the top.
“I want the person who committed this outrage to be punished, and possibly those who published it,” Eric Ciotti wrote to a government ministry, who is a deputy from President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party, calling for an investigation.
It seems that the FNAC and the photographer played a low profile and the picture was quickly withdrawn from the contest in Nice after complaints from veterans' groups.
The problem is that since this "desecration of the flag" took place at a private cultural event, it is not covered by the law and is only an offense, not a crime.
Never mind, France’s Minister of Justice Michele Alliot-Marie believes the law should just be changed :
"Presumably the law has the legal means to punish such an intolerable act against the French flag," said the minister's spokesman."If the existing law proves incomplete in this regard, it should be revised." (BBC)
So is France becoming more American? Hardly. Something major is missing: the First Amendment to the US Constitution which guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of speech and makes the US Flag Code more or less irrelevant. (Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that punitive enforcement would conflict with the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.).
Given the current level of crime in France, it seems to me that Mrs Alliot-Marie has better things to do and should addressed the real issue of crime and stop messing with people's bad taste.

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