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France’s Zemmour can’t upend conviction for inciting hate

The far-right television personality and failed presidential candidate has made contempt for Islam a focus of his campaign, saying the religion undermines French values. 

STRASBOURG, France (CN) — Tossing a complaint from Éric Zemmour, Europe’s top rights court ruled Tuesday that France was justified in prosecuting the far-right politician after he made “derogatory and discriminatory” remarks in 2016.

Zemmour complained that the conviction violated his freedom of expression, but the European Court of Human Rights concluded, in a ruling only available in French, that comments he made on a French news show fell outside of protected speech.

The case marks another defeat for the 64-year-old who took fourth place in presidential elections earlier this year. In 2016, as a guest on the nightly news show "C à vous," or "It’s up to you," Zemmour was promoting his most recent book when he made a series of discriminatory statements about France’s Muslim population. He said no when asked if any Muslim in France was peaceful and fully integrated. He also argued that Muslims living in the country “need to be given a choice between Islam and France.”  

A nongovernmental organization in France that campaigns for the rights of Palestinians complained that the comments violated France’s hate speech law, and Zemmour was in turn brought up on charges. In 2017, a court in Paris convicted him of inciting discrimination, hatred or violence against a group on grounds of their origin or membership of a religion and fined him 5,000 euros ($5,300). 

After his conviction was upheld by France’s highest court in 2019, he took the fight to Strasbourg where he argued that his comments were his opinions on a topical subject and thus protected by the European Convention of Human Rights. The treaty, which created the court in 1959, protects the political and civil rights of Europeans. 

The seven-judge panel concluded his statements were not simply comments on an issue of public interest but “contained derogatory and discriminatory claims of a kind that might exacerbate a rift between French people and the Muslim community.” The court said such inciting and discriminatory remarks fell outside of protections for freedom of expression. 

Further, the court emphasized Zemmour's longstanding history as a guest on radio and television programs, saying he should have comported himself better on the show. He was “fully capable of measuring his words and assessing their consequences, despite the interviewers’ point-blank questioning,” the judges wrote. 

Zemmour has been convicted of making discriminatory remarks before. He said in an interview on another TV program in 2010 that French employers “had the right to refuse Arabs or blacks” for jobs. He was convicted of incitement to racial discrimination for claiming it was lawful to refuse to hire someone based on race, a practice that is outlawed in France. 

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