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Happy Slapping the French Public

Sarko takes a stand against citizen journalism.

12:00 AM, Mar 14, 2007 • By SOPHIE FERNANDEZ
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The filming by private persons of acts of violence--crimes, riots, police brutality--has been banned in France. The new measure, sponsored by Nicolas Sarkozy, minister of the interior and a leading candidate for president, is one provision of a juvenile crime law that received final approval from the Constitutional Council on March 3. It provides up to five years in prison and fines of up to 75,000 Euros ($98,000) to anyone not acting in a professional capacity--such as a licensed journalist--or using the footage as evidence in a court of law.

The ostensible purpose of the ban is to curb "happy slapping," the recording of assaults and other crimes by accomplices in order to post videos on the Internet as trophies. Although this practice began among young criminals in South London, France is the first country to legislate against it.

Civil libertarians like Reporters Without Borders were quick to object, noting the explicit inclusion under the ban of the filming of acts "committed by an agent of the state in the exercise of his duties." The Rodney King videos would have been contraband under the new French law.

Quite apart from instances of official misconduct, however, the ban attempts to squelch the growing phenomenon of "citizen journalism," made possible by the wide proliferation of phonecams and small digital cameras that can record moving images, which can then easily be spread via sites like YouTube on the Internet.

Yet the mainstream media in France have been nearly silent on the subject of the ban, in both their news columns and their commentary pages. As of this writing, Google News hits on the subject in English outnumber Google News France hits by nearly ten to one. This may reflect the different news cultures of the English-speaking world, which values freedom of the press, and France, with its licensed journalists, government-owned television and radio channels (side by side, now, with private ones), and an establishment press solicitous of the nation's image in the world.


Asked who would remain free to film violence in the street under the new law, Jean-Marc Berlioz, Sarkozy's spokesman at the Ministry of the Interior, reiterated, "A journalist is someone who has a Press Card" issued by the professional association, the Convention Collective de Journalistes.

Nicolas Barré, assistant chief editor at the establishment daily Le Figaro, expressed surprise at being questioned about his paper's sparse coverage of the video ban. While conceding that "happy slapping is not really a big issue [in France] compared with the U.K.," he took the law at face value: "an attempt to prevent minor accomplices to assault from broadcasting their actions." Like Sarkozy, he expressed confidence that the law will be enforced with restraint.


But it is not clear that the ban can be enforced at all without draconian measures, considering how common amateur filming has become. The rapid spread around the world of shocking images of the French urban riots that began in Clichy-Sous-Bois in October 2005, for instance, and raged for several weeks was largely a result of citizen reporting--and foreign reporting--at a time when many French news outlets chose to exercise caution in what they showed the public.


It's a new information regime, and one that may be particularly uncongenial to French media and political elites, with their anti-populist outlook and cherished traditions of centralized control. Whether Sarkozy has been wise in launching this frontal assault on powers newly acquired by the citizenry remains to be seen.

Sophie Fernandez is an intern at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.