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Napoleon complex: Is it illegal to insult the president in France?

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Napoleon complex: Is it illegal to insult the president in France?
A protester with an effigy holding a sign that reads, 'career, cemetery, thank you Macron' during a demonstration. Photo by Alain JOCARD / AFP

Most French people have fairly strong feelings about their leader - but is it actually illegal to insult the president? And what's the story of Napoleon the pig?

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A woman in northern France is to stand trial on charges of 'insulting' president Emmanuel Macron in a post on Facebook. The facts of that particular case are a matter for the courts, but the concept of insulting the ruler of France has a pretty interesting history, including a pig . . .

One weird France 'fact' that regularly gets trotted out is that it is (or are one time was) illegal to name a pig Napoleon because of the insult to the former ruler.

This is despite the fact that no-one has ever been able to find any evidence of either a law that could reasonably be construed as this, or anyone ever being prosecuted for naming their pig Napoleon.

Records of what people named their pigs are a little sketchy, so we don't know whether anyone in fact ever did this, but there is one very famous example from literature - George Orwell's Animal Farm.

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In the French edition of the 1945 novel, Napoleon the pig is named . . . Napoléon. 

There is no record of Orwell or his publishers encountering any problems in France because of this. 

It's hard to say exactly why this has become such an enduring trope, but it is true that France until relatively recently had laws in place to prevent rulers being 'insulted'.

The law from 1881 (passed after the death of both Napoleon Bonaparte and his nephew Napoleon III) made it an offence punishable by either jail or a fine to be rude about the French president (and only the president, insulting other politicians was always fine).

During Charles de Gaulle's tenure six people were convicted of the offence, but it was last used in 2013 when a protester was fined €30 for holding up a banner to then-president Nicolas Sarkozy reading casse-toi pauvre con (get lost, asshole).

The law was finally scrapped later in 2013 after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the protester's freedom of expression had been violated.

Yellow vest protesters use their freedom of expression to declare 'Macron you are worse than a pig'
Photo by JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER / AFP

Since then, many thousands of people have shared their negative views on Emmanuel Macron and his presidency.

The president does, of course, have the same levels of protection as anyone else against defamation, invasion of privacy or threats.

Threats against public officials has become an increasing problem and interior minister Gérald Darmanin has requested increased protection for some public figures who support the controversial pension reform - the leader of Macron's parliamentary party Aurore Bergé was threatened with harm to her four-month-old baby by opponents of the reform.

Making threats to any public official - from the village mayor right up to the president - is a criminal offence, while one local mairie has introduced a code of conduct that requires polite behaviour from all visitors to the office.

 

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