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Court strikes down key parts of France’s controversial online hate speech law

France's highest constitutional authority on Thursday ruled that it objected to a key part of new legislation that aims to fight hatred online but has also sparked controversy among critics as harming civil liberties.

Court strikes down key parts of France's controversial online hate speech law
Photo: AFP

The Constitutional Council ruled that certain new obligations for internet platforms set out in the law – passed by parliament in May – were harmful to freedom of expression and communication.

Lawmakers will now have to agree changes to the law before it is submitted to President Emmanuel Macron for signing.

The Council ruled that certain parts of the law could “encourage operators of online platforms to withdraw content… whether or not it (the content) is manifestly illegal.”

It said that a 24-hour period to withdraw material or face a penalty was “particularly short”.

“The legislature has infringed freedom of expression and communication in a way which is not adapted, necessary or proportionate to the stated aim,” it added.

The law obliges platforms and search engines to remove offensive content – incitement to hate or violence and racist or religious bigotry – within 24 hours or risk a fine of up to €1.25 million.

An extension of Macron's vow to battle racism and anti-Semitism propagated via the internet, the bill was first submitted to parliament over a year ago.

It has since been amended several times in response to criticism and comments, including from the European Commission which demanded a clearer definition of what kind of content would be criminalised.

It has drawn criticism from watchdog bodies in France that have expressed concerns over potential violations of the right to freely express oneself on the world wide web.

And digital companies are worried about fines or legal battles that may result from the new onus placed on them to determine what content violates the bill, and then withdraw it within the given timeframe. 

The French right had staunchly opposed the law and used its control of the upper house Senate to register its objections while the legislation was going through parliament.

“Only the title of the law appears to have been deemed constitutional,” Bruno Retailleau, the head of the right-wing The Republicans party in the Senate wrote with heavy sarcasm on Twitter.

“All those who care about freedom must celebrate this,” he said.

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FRENCH POLITICS

French minister investigated after rape allegations

A junior minister in President Emmanuel Macron's government is under investigation after two allegations of rape were brought against her, French prosecutors have said.

French minister investigated after rape allegations

The allegations go back to when Chrysoula Zacharopoulou – who is now state secretary for development, Francophonie and international partnerships – worked as a gynaecologist, according to French magazine Marianne.

One complaint was lodged on May 25th and the investigation opened two days later, the prosecutors said. The second complaint was filed on June 16th.

Greece-born Zacharopoulou, 46, joined the government of Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne in May, having been a member of the European Parliament for the previous three years. She reports to Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna.

She gained prominence in 2015 by campaigning for greater public awareness of endometriosis together with actress Julie Gayet, who this year married former French president Francois Hollande.

Zacharopoulou was strongly involved in the UN’s COVAX coronavirus vaccine rollout effort, and has spoken out in favour of women’s reproductive rights.

These are not the first rape allegations to overshadow Macron’s government and come at a time of political difficulty for the president after he failed to retain a majority in parliamentary elections.

Prosecutors investigated Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin over an allegation for rape filed in 2017. He denied any wrongdoing and prosecutors in
January asked for the case to be dropped.

Rape allegations were also made against Solidarities minister Damien Abad last month but French prosecutors have said they were not currently opening an investigation.

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