France: Shield Against Insult

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Charles de Gaulle is extremely thin-skinned about criticism or ridicule from his fellow Frenchmen. Unlike such helpless victims of the public and press as Lyndon Johnson or Harold Wilson, however, he has found a way to intimidate and punish his critics. In 1881, when the President of France was a powerless and nonpolitical figurehead, the National Assembly passed a law against insulting him "by speeches, cries, threats uttered in public places, or by writings, posters or notices exhibited to the public." In its first 77 years on the books, the law was invoked only nine times. Then, on his accession in 1959, De Gaulle and his backers found it.

Though he is hardly the sort of President the law was designed to protect, De Gaulle in nine years has used it no fewer than 350 times as a powerful weapon against his critics. The penalty for violating the law can run as high as a $20,000 fine, a year in prison and loss of the right to vote. Government prosecutors are working overtime to bring violators to justice. A Paris court has just fined left-wing Writer François Fonvieille-Alquier for writing in his new book, To Relearn Irreverence, that the general gets carnal pleasure from appearing before crowds.

Ever More Ridiculous. Editorial writ ers have been convicted for calling De Gaulle a "liar," and Political Writer Alfred Fabre-Luce was fined $300 for describing him as "a combination of Machiavelli and Cyrano de Bergerac." Truth is no defense. Former Cabinet Minister Henry Lemery, 93, was found guilty and fined for writing that De Gaulle, as the leader of Free French forces during World War II, personally ordered attacks against Vichy French garrisons in Dakar and Algeria—even though most historians now agree that he did just that. The government indicted the anti-Gaullist weekly Minute on charges of "offending" De Gaulle in an article that described, in scientific terms and without mentioning names, the symptoms of paranoia.

"This law has become a law of oppression," says Socialist Leader François Mitterrand. With support from leftists and independent deputies, Mitterrand hopes to persuade the National Assembly to repeal it. His chances are only fair, and meantime Frenchmen must watch themselves. Aimed at ever more ridiculous targets, the 87-year-old law was recently invoked to arrest a diner at a provincial bistro for drawing a caricature of De Gaulle on a tablecloth, an amateur ceramist for portraving him on an ashtray, a drunk for criticizing him in a bar, and an unsuspecting man in the street for shouting "Hou! Hou! (Boo! Boo!)" at a passing presidential motorcade.