- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2008

Might it take a French sex symbol to teach Americans a crucial lesson about politics?

The principles upon which this country was founded were influenced by thinkers as far afield as Britain and France, Greece and Rome. Since then, the trade in ideas also has gone increasingly in the other direction. So it’s easy to forget that a principle we take for granted here often means something very different elsewhere.

Take one of the most basic tenets of public life. America and Europe may share many of the same core values, but these days, a common understanding of free speech is not one of them.

That was thrown into high relief last week when a trial began in a Paris courtroom. Brigitte Bardot, the 73-year-old former actress best-known for steamy French flicks like “And God Created Woman,” has been charged with “inciting racial hatred” toward Muslims. (Never mind that Islam is a religion, not a race.)

If she loses — the verdict is expected June 3 — she faces more than just a token penalty. Prosecutors want a severe two-month suspended jail sentence and a 15,000 euro (almost $24,000) fine because, assistant prosecutor Anne de Fontette says, “I’m a bit tired of trying Madame Bardot.” Miss Bardot has been convicted under the hate law four times in the past 11 years.

What did the former screen siren say to merit what that the prosecutor calls “the most striking and remarkable” punishment? Did she call on others to start persecuting Muslims? For pogroms?

No, she protested their treatment of livestock.

When President Nicolas Sarkozy was the interior minister, Miss Bardot wrote a letter to him complaining about the ritual slaughter of sheep during the Muslim festival of Eid-al-Kabir. She said the animals should be stunned before they are bled to death. Miss Bardot retired from acting in the 1970s and focused her energies on animal rights.

In her letter, which also was published in her foundation’s journal, she wrote, “I’ve had enough of being led by the nose by this whole population which is destroying us, destroying our country by imposing their ways.”

In the past, Miss Bardot was convicted for a letter in the French daily Le Figaro decrying “foreign overpopulation” and complaining in one of her books about the “Islamization of France.”

Imagine if every American who voiced concerns about immigration faced a court hearing — our courts wouldn’t be able to handle the caseload.

Some readers may be surprised to learn that free speech American-style is rare, even among the select club of long-established democracies. The First Amendment to the Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Petition the French government, and you might find yourself paying thousands of dollars in fines.

Such prosecutions have gone on for years, but it has taken someone with the iconic fame of Miss Bardot to make many people take notice. In France, you have to be careful what you say even in conversation. Novelist Michel Houellebecq faced up to 18 months in prison or a 70,000 euro ($111,200) fine when he was charged with inciting racial hatred after declaring in an interview, “The stupidest religion, after all, is Islam.” He was acquitted, though.

Provocative comments about Islam aren’t the only thing that could get you in trouble. Soon it may be a crime to publish a picture of a very skinny woman in the fashion capital of the world. Last week, France’s National Assembly voted to approve a bill that makes encouraging “extreme thinness” punishable by up to three years in prison and $71,000 in fines. It targets pro-anorexia Web sites, but its author believes it’s vague enough to be used to prosecute the fashion industry. Milan and Madrid already have banned what they consider too-skinny models from their runways.

It’s not that the French are particularly touchy — hate laws are the norm across Europe. In the Netherlands, the political party Centrum Democraten and its leaders were prosecuted successfully for the party’s extreme anti-immigration proposals. In Sweden, a pastor was sentenced to one month’s jail time for preaching a sermon, later published in a newspaper, that quoted biblical texts condemning homosexuality. (Two years later, the sentence finally was overturned on appeal.)

Most surprisingly, even other countries in the Anglosphere don’t share America’s belief in the inviolability of freedom of speech. The United States’ neighbor to the north may see itself as a socially liberal haven, but I could fill this column — several columns — with stories of hate-speech prosecutions in Canada, my native land.

A private printer there had to pay a fine of $5,000 after he refused to print stationery for gay activists out of deference to his Christian beliefs. Another man was fined $4,500 for printing an ad that listed four Bible references — not even the text — next to an equal sign and a drawing of two stickmen holding hands underneath the universal sign for “not” (a red circle with a line through it). The newspaper that ran the ad also was fined. Religious freedom doesn’t fare too well up north, with the Bible basically considered hate literature.

Great Britain, whose thinkers once helped inspire the American Revolution, also has a law forbidding incitement to racial hatred. British National Party Chairman Nick Griffin was convicted under the law for handing out BNP material that denied the Holocaust.

Of course, the specter of the Holocaust is one reason many European nations adopted speech codes. No one wants such a great evil to happen again. The way to prevent that, though, is not to make anti-Semitic statements illegal. All that does is drive the crazies who preach such things underground, making it harder to expose and ridicule them. By allowing citizens to express their views in letters to the editor, interviews and newspaper ads, the rest of us can know their beliefs and, through the same channels, discredit them.

Miss Bardot is a French icon who once was the model for the Gallic national symbol Marianne. The sad thing is, if she wants to start a debate over her growing concerns about the future of her country, she’ll have to move to the United States to do so.

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