The French have always taken their food very seriously, but after a judge ordered a blogger to pay damages to a restaurant owner for an insulting review, they seem to have reached a new level.
An August 2013 post from a blogger who goes by the name L’Irrégulière chronicled an unhappy visit to a pizzeria called ll Giardino in the western French beach town of Cap Ferret.
The blogger starts by mocking the server calling her “a harpy (bad tempered woman) in a fluorescent vest” who yelled at her for sitting at a table without permission.
She then complains about a delay in getting pre-meal drinks. Finally she relates how she got into a row with the owner whom the blogger described as a woman who “takes herself for a diva.”
And the cherry on the top was the review's title: “The place to avoid in Cap Ferret: Il Giardino”
It was that headline, which the judge at a court in Bordeaux decided on July 2nd, qualified as a personal attack rather than a common drubbing. The judge ruled the review itself was covered by freedom of speech protections, but the title was “denigration” (defamation) or the public smearing of one or one’s business’s good name, French magazine l’Express reported.
It’s a decision that made the ‘diva’ restaurant owner happy. She had argued that the title, which at one time popped up in fourth position on a Google search of the restaurant’s name, had been passed around among locals and tourists to the detriment of her business.
“Customers showed us the blog and told us they had hesitated before coming in because of the review. It’s the neighboring businesses that convinced them to come nonetheless,” the unnamed owner told French newspaper Sud Ouest. “We’ve been here 15 years, it hurts to get insulted.”
The judge figured that the insult was worth €1,500 in damages and another €1,000 for the blogger's court costs.
For her part the reviewer said “the proceedings were vicious. The restaurant didn’t even try to contact me.”
She has since taken the review down, even though the court had only asked her to change the title. However, according to a legal expert the blogger could have done much more to win the case, such as hire a lawyer to represent her in court.
“It’s a €2,500 mistake,” a blogger and lawyer who goes by the name of Maître Eolas told L’Express. “There are arguments against this judgment and any lawyer could have found a Court of Cassation ruling that flagrantly contradicts this decision.”
"She was naive to believe that you can get by in the legal system just with good intentions and common sense.”
In recent months France has wrangled over the question of how much freedom should be given to online scribes.
Under pressure from Jewish groups the government ordered Twitter to hand over the identities of users who posted anti-Semitic or homophobic comment online.
And in July last year the national association on standardization AFNOR published a plan that set some voluntary standards for companies that were aimed at ensuring more authentic user reviews.
As for this case, it might sound shocking to advocates of internet freedom but Maître Eolas said the decision cannot be used to set a legal precedent because the court that made the ruling doesn’t have that power. Her only advice to bloggers was this.
“Is there a risk that you will get sued? Yes. The only way to avoid that risk is to not publish anything on a blog or on social media!”