Sunday, December 07, 2008

France, the Land of Human Rights?

Well, despite our positive post on the way the French view immigration, not everything is rosy in the "land of human rights".

This week's big fuss in France was about the treatment of a journalist by the police.
The journalist had been accused of libel, and one morning he was dragged out of his home in front of his young sons for ignoring repeated court summonses. Justice Minister Rachida Dati, said this was normal procedure and that when someone "does not comply with summons, we send him a warrant to bring him in". He, on the other hand, claimed he never received the summons. (contrary to the american procedure, where summons are handed to you personally, summons in France are sent by regular mail... which, given the reliability of the mail system, is a recipe for confusion).

What is not "normal" anyway is that this journalist was eventually hancuffed and stripserached twice, something excessive for a man accused of libel, or even ignoring summons sent by mail. This is only the lastest case in a series of what may be seen as intimidation tactics by overzealous police and justices.

As the IHT puts it :
beyond the squabbles over legal procedure, the case has highlighted the larger question of how much freedom of speech exists here. France ranks 35th in press freedom in a list of countries established by Reporters Without Borders - just below Mali - and Sarkozy himself has not shied from suing a journalist perceived to be hostile.
To be fair, this is probably laughing matter to a Chinese, a North Korean, or a majority of the world's populationbut for the "land of the human rights", and a lesson-giver to developing countries, this should count for something.

And if you think this just an isolated incident of overzealous police, think again :
Attempts by French authorities to pressure journalists to disclose their sources was the main cause for concern in the French media [last yea], with journalists being subjected to searches of their property, detention, and judicial proceedings.
Journalists in France are protected by Article 109 of the Criminal Code, which stipulates that "any journalist heard as a witness about information gathered while practicing their profession is free not to reveal their sources." This, however, did not deter a judge from attempting to access files at the offices of Le Canard Enchainé on 11 May. During the course of an investigation into what is known as the "Clearstream" affair, judges attempted to enter the offices of the satirical weekly magazine. However, journalists locked the newsroom to prevent them getting to the information that had sought. (International Press Institute)
This week also surfaced another piece of news : 2 weeks ago the police raided a school, looking for drugs, going right in the midst of a classroom, brandishing police dogs and eventually bodysearching some adolescents… An operation conducted within the framework of a drug « prevention » programme, which turned into a display of public humiliation for many of the pupils. (see here for details).

It may also be worth noticing that the Council of Europe's Human rights has also repeatedly slammed France for its overcrowed and dilapidated jails (where suicides are rampant).

And what about those memory laws in France that tell you what and how you must remember certain historical events. (read here)...

This is nothing new, already in 2005, the Council of Europe human rights commissioner, Mr. Alvaro Gil-Robles, wrote a report criticizing the legal system, detention conditions, the prosecution of abuses committed by members of the police and the treatment of members of ethnic minorities in France, and he made a very relevant conclusion :
"Yet, it would seem that at present the prevailing mood among police officers is one of impunity. As a result, few cases of police violence result in convictions which are proportionate to the offences committed. Procedures are highly complicated for victims and investigations are a delicate matter. The sense of mutual loyalty between the different branches of the security forces accounts partly for the fact that statements very often match one another perfectly. In many cases, police officers anticipate the victims' complaints and file their own complaints for insults to or the obstruction of officers in the course of their duties."
In relation to the legal system, the report notes that several professionals referred to the "knee-jerk passing of new legislation in response to social problems" and to a "legislative rainstorm" that makes it difficult for lawyers and judges to keep up with developments and "may well create a problem of legal insecurity". Conditions in some holding facilities for detainees appearing before judges in courthouses are described as "disastrous" and "totally at odds with modern requirements", and lack of funding for the court system is linked with problems including the slowness of the judicial process, which has resulted in a number of past rulings by the European Court of Human Rights which have condemned France.
And the situation has only gotten worse since then. (of course, the fact that Nicolas Sarkoy, then Minister of the Interior has now becocme President of France may not help the situation and easy the current tension).

So, while on paper, it all looks good, as you can see, the reality is very different and needs to be re-assessed regularly. Changes must be made... Can we?
As a liberal, I am sometimes pessemistic at times when I realize how big the gap still is in this day and age between our proclaimed ideals and the reality on the ground, and how little it would take to go wrong for any of us.

(just for our non-French readers, the "land of human rights" - le pays des droits de l'homme- an expression cherished by the French media to talk about their nation, an expression however not much in use elsewhere since it is well known that Britain is the birthplace of human rights)


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