Censorship in France  

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Les Poires, as sold separately to cover the expenses of a trial for Le Charivari
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Les Poires, as sold separately to cover the expenses of a trial for Le Charivari

"On June 25, 1545, a catalogue of censored books that included Gargantua and Pantagruel, drawn up by the Sorbonne and approved by the Parlement of Paris, was published by town criers in Paris."--Rabelais Carnival by Sam Kinser [1]

Inversions, the first French gay journal is published. Produced between 1924 and 1926, it stopped publication after the French government charged the publishers with "Outrage aux bonnes mœurs".
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Inversions, the first French gay journal is published. Produced between 1924 and 1926, it stopped publication after the French government charged the publishers with "Outrage aux bonnes mœurs".

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

France has a long history of governmental censorship, particularly in the 16th to 18th centuries, but today freedom of press is guaranteed by the French Constitution and instances of governmental censorship are limited.

There was strong governmental control over radio and television during the 1950s-70s. Today, the CSA is only responsible for overseeing the observance of French law by the media. The 1990 Gayssot Act which prohibits racist or/and religious hate speech (which historical revisionism, in particular but not only Holocaust denial falls under), and time period allocated to each political party during pre-electoral periods. Furthermore, other laws prohibit homophobic hate speech, and a 1970 law prohibits the advocacy of illegal drugs. In 2016, a television ad which advocated that babies with Down Syndrome shouldn't be aborted solely because of their syndrome ran. It was ruled anti-abortion speech and removed.

Each of these laws has been criticized by some groups, either from the left (especially concerning the 1970 law on drugs) or from the far right (in particular concerning the 1990 Gayssot Act or the laws prohibiting homophobic attacks). Others express the need for minorities to be protected from hate speech which may lead, according to them, to heinous acts and hate crimes, while still others claim that one cannot tolerate free speech concerning drugs as it is a matter of public health and moral order. However, the 2005 vote of the law on colonialism voted by the UMP conservative parliamentary majority has lifted a debate, especially among historians, concerning the legitimacy and relevancy of such "memory laws." Although a fair amount of historians are opposed to such laws, few advocate their repeal because they think that, having voted them in, , repealing them would be a greater evil.

Finally, critics, in particular, but not only, from the left wing, have criticized economic censorship, in particular through concentration of media ownership (Bouygues' influence, for instance, on TF1), or the fact that Dassault or Lagardère, both military firms, control several newspapers in France, such as Le Figaro (owned by Dassault).

Over all, freedom of press is guaranteed by the French Constitution, several effective cases of censorship, against newspapers (Le Canard enchaîné, Charlie Hebdo and Hara-Kiri newspapers, etc.), films, or radio-shows, have been registered in the history of the Fifth Republic, founded in 1958. Most recently, several acts ordered by Nicolas Sarkozy, then-Interior Minister and former President of the Republic (until 2012), have been criticized as forms of censorship (i.e. the firing of the director of Paris Match — controlled by Hachette Filipacchi Médias, the world's largest magazine publisher, itself owned by Lagardère — because he had published photos of Cécilia Sarkozy with another man in New York).

Contents

History of freedom of press and censorship in France

To the 18th Century

Royal censorship during the Ancien Régime, François Garasse

Censorship in France may be traced to the middle ages. In 1275 Philip III of France put Parisian scriptoria under the control of the University of Paris which inspected manuscript books to verify that they were correctly copied. Correctness of text, not content, was the concern until the early 1500s, when tracts by Martin Luther were printed. On June 13, 1521, Francis I of France decreed that all (religious) books had to be read and approved by the Faculty of Theology of the University, and on August 3, 1521, Parlement ordered that all Lutheran books must be deposited within one week. On January 13, 1535, an extreme statute was enacted forbidding all printing under threat of hanging and closing all bookshops. This law was quickly abandoned, and Parlement formed a commission to review book printing.

In 1536 it was ordered that all medical books must be approved by the Medical Faculty of the University, and actions were taken against certain publishers of books on medicine and astrology. In 1544, the University banned the printing of any book not approved by the appropriate University officials. In 1543, the Faculty of Theology issued its first Index of prohibited books, all religious, preceding by 16 years the Vatican's issuance of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1559. The Edict of Châteaubriant issued on June 27, 1551, prohibited possessing any books listed on the University's Index; translating the Bible or works of the Church Fathers; importing books from Geneva and other places not under the Church's control; or printing or selling of any religious books written in the last 40 years.

The state itself began to take a greater role in censorship over the University and in 1566, the Ordonnance of Moulins was issued, banning the writing, printing or selling of defamatory books attacking individual's good reputations and requiring that all books published must be approved and include the privilège and the great seal. The state control was strengthened in 1571 by the edict of Gaillon which placed enforcement of the censorship laws in the Chancellor's office instead of the University.

The concern of the censors was "heresy, sedition and personal libel" until 1629 (Code Michau?), when censorship began to focus also on immorality and indecency. "Nevertheless ... the government was never so much concerned about looseness of morals as it was about freedom of thought." (Pottinger) Manuscripts had to be approved by the Chancellor before publication and a register of permits was maintained. During the 17th century, the University and the state fought over control of censorship, which was haphazard. In 1653, the University was stripped of authority and replaced by royal censors. The royal censors office expanded in the 18th century and banned hundreds of titles. Books that were approved were required to include the censor's name and certificate of approval. Censorship was eventually under the authority of the office of the Director of the Book Trade, the most famous of which was Lamoignon de Malesherbes. Penalties for violations ranged from confiscation of books which often were burned, fines, imprisonment and even death. In the later 18th century these rules were increasingly evaded by printers and booksellers.

The Nineteenth Century

19th century censorship, Charter of 1830, Les poires

The loi sur la liberté de la presse of 29 July 1881 was passed under the French Third Republic in 1881 by the then-dominant Opportunist Republicans who sought to liberalise the press and promote free public discussion. The new law swept away a swathe of earlier statutes, stating at the outset the principle that "Printing and publication are free".

Following Auguste Vaillant's assassination attempt, the first anti-terrorist laws was voted in 1893, which were quickly denounced as lois scélérates. These laws severely restricted freedom of expression. The first one condemned apology of any felony or crime as a felony itself, permitting widespread censorship of the press. The second one allowed to condemn any person directly or indirectly involved in a propaganda of the deed act, even if no killing was effectively carried on. The last one condemned any person or newspaper using anarchist propaganda (and, by extension, socialist libertarians present or former members of the International Workingmen's Association (IWA):

"1. Either by provocation or by apology... [anyone who has] encouraged one or several persons in committing either a stealing, or the crimes of murder, looting or arson...; 2. Or has addressed a provocation to military from the Army or the Navy, in the aim of diverting them from their military duties and the obedience due to their chiefs... will be deferred before courts and punished by a prison sentence of three months to two years.

The Twentieth Century

During World War I, postal censorship was in force, as the French state thought it necessary to control the public's morale and thus engaged in a sort of psychological warfare. Censorship was current during the war, leading to the 1915 creation of Le Canard enchaîné weekly, which used satires and other games of words to pass through "Anastasia's scissors", as was popularly called the censors (such words games still exist in Le Canard, for leisure purposes, such as the section named "Sur l'album de la Ccomtesse").

Censorship laws were revoked with the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958, although cases of censorship still occurred (in particular concerning films or satirical newspapers). The proclamation of the state of emergency, used during the Algerian War (1954-62) and also in 2005, during the civil unrest, allows the state to legally censor news articles and other media productions (used during the Algerian War, this censorship disposition was not used in 2005).

Henri Alleg's book La Question denouncing torture by the French Army during the Algerian war was censored, as well as other similar books and films, such as The Battle of Algiers.

Recently, UMP deputy Nadine Morano interpellated Interior Minister (UMP) Nicolas Sarkozy to censor hip-hop bands, while 200 UMP deputies, led by François Grosdidier, tried without success to censor hip-hop bands. The whole thing started with a song called La France by french hip-hop band Sniper.

In 1987 a law repressing incitation to suicide was passed, after a best-selling book called "Suicide, mode d'emploi" was published in 1982. The bill was first adopted by the Senate in 1983; in 1987, during the debates before the National Assembly, the book was cited by name as a prime example of what was to be banned. This book, written by two anarchists (Claude Guillon and Yves Le Bonniec), contained a historic and theoretical account of suicide, as well as a critical overview of ways to commit suicide. The book could not be rereleased in 1989 because of that law. The book is thus censored de facto, unavailable in all libraries and bookshops in France. It has never been translated into English.

Cinema

All films intended for theatrical release have to be granted a visa by the Ministry of Culture, upon the recommendation of Commission for film classification (Commission de classification cinématographique), which can give a film one of four ratings:

  • Tous publics (universal): suitable for all audiences
  • Interdit aux moins de 12 ans (-12): Forbidden for under 12s
  • Interdit aux moins de 16 ans (-16): Forbidden for under 16s
  • Interdit aux moins de 18 ans (-18): Forbidden for under 18s

Cinemas are bound by law to prevent underaged audiences from viewing films and may be fined if they fail to do so.

The Commission cannot make cuts to a film, but it can ban it, although this latter power is rarely used. In practice, this means that most films in France are categorized rather than censored.

Although there are no written guidelines as to what sort of content should receive which rating and ratings are given on a case by case basis, the commissioners typically cite violent, sexual and drug related content (especially if it is deemed to be graphic or gratuitous) as reasons for higher ratings. By contrast little attention is paid to strong language. However sexual content is much less likely to produce a high rating than in many other countries, including the United States.

Films that have received comparatively low ratings in France include:

List of censored books

List of censored songs

List of censored films

X rating in France

See also

X rating in France




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