'God Created Woman' ... to Be Silent? French Actress's Plight Highlights Limits of Freedom of Speech among the Democracies

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 25, 2008 | Go to article overview

'God Created Woman' ... to Be Silent? French Actress's Plight Highlights Limits of Freedom of Speech among the Democracies


Byline: Kelly Jane Torrance, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Might it take a French sex symbol to teach Americans a crucial lesson about politics?

The principles upon which this country was founded were influenced by thinkers as far afield as Britain and France, Greece and Rome. Since then, the trade in ideas also has gone increasingly in the other direction. So it's easy to forget that a principle we take for granted here often means something very different elsewhere.

Take one of the most basic tenets of public life. America and Europe may share many of the same core values, but these days, a common understanding of free speech is not one of them.

That was thrown into high relief last week when a trial began in a Paris courtroom. Brigitte Bardot, the 73-year-old former actress best-known for steamy French flicks like "And God Created Woman," has been charged with "inciting racial hatred" toward Muslims. (Never mind that Islam is a religion, not a race.)

If she loses - the verdict is expected June 3 - she faces more than just a token penalty. Prosecutors want a severe two-month suspended jail sentence and a 15,000 euro (almost $24,000) fine because, assistant prosecutor Anne de Fontette says, "I'm a bit tired of trying Madame Bardot." Miss Bardot has been convicted under the hate law four times in the past 11 years.

What did the former screen siren say to merit what that the prosecutor calls "the most striking and remarkable" punishment? Did she call on others to start persecuting Muslims? For pogroms?

No, she protested their treatment of livestock.

When President Nicolas Sarkozy was the interior minister, Miss Bardot wrote a letter to him complaining about the ritual slaughter of sheep during the Muslim festival of Eid-al-Kabir. She said the animals should be stunned before they are bled to death. Miss Bardot retired from acting in the 1970s and focused her energies on animal rights.

In her letter, which also was published in her foundation's journal, she wrote, "I've had enough of being led by the nose by this whole population which is destroying us, destroying our country by imposing their ways."

In the past, Miss Bardot was convicted for a letter in the French daily Le Figaro decrying "foreign overpopulation" and complaining in one of her books about the "Islamization of France."

Imagine if every American who voiced concerns about immigration faced a court hearing - our courts wouldn't be able to handle the caseload.

Some readers may be surprised to learn that free speech American-style is rare, even among the select club of long-established democracies. The First Amendment to the Constitution states, "Congress shall make no law ...

abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances"

Petition the French government, and you might find yourself paying thousands of dollars in fines.

Such prosecutions have gone on for years, but it has taken someone with the iconic fame of Miss Bardot to make many people take notice. In France, you have to be careful what you say even in conversation. Novelist Michel Houellebecq faced up to 18 months in prison or a 70,000 euro ($111,200) fine when he was charged with inciting racial hatred after declaring in an interview, "The stupidest religion, after all, is Islam. …

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