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Human Rights Groups Hail French Decision to Ban Far-Right Group - 2002-08-11

France's decision last week to ban the far-right Radical Unity group and its web site is only the latest of several high-profile cases targeting hate speech and anti-racist discourse. The ruling sparked surprisingly little criticism, despite some fears that French and other European governments are increasingly threatening free expression, especially on the Internet.

Radical Unity is nobody's idea of a warm and fuzzy cause. When Israel's minister of tourism, Rehavam Zeevi, was assassinated last October, the far-right French group posted a congratulatory notice on its web page to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which claimed responsibility for the killing.

When Slobodan Milosevic began his trial in The Hague, Radical Unity urged members to send letters of support to the former Serbian dictator. And when one of its own, 25-year-old Maxime Brunerie, allegedly tried to kill President Jacques Chirac during July's Bastille Day parade, the group defended a so-called "act of desperation" committed by a "victim of the Totalitarian system."

So few tears were shed last week when the French government moved to dissolve Radical Unity. A French court banned its web site two days later. Prominent Human rights and anti-racism groups in France hailed the twin decisions. They agree Radical Unity violated a 1936 French law against inciting hatred and racial violence. Even the Paris-based organization Reporters Without Borders, which traditionally defends free speech, did not criticize the ban against Radical Unity's Web site. Loic Coriou, an Internet expert for Reporters Without Borders, explains why.

Mr. Coriou says Reporters draws the line when it comes to media and Internet sites that support and incite violence and racial hatred. His organization examined Radical Unity's web site carefully, he said, and found it did just that.

In fact, far-right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen is among the few arguing the French ban amounts to censorship.

Mr. Le Pen, who ran against Mr. Chirac in presidential elections this year, says outlawing Radical Unity merely gives the group more publicity. Increasingly, Mr. Le Pen says, the government is trying to muzzle free speech, just to eradicate ideas it dislikes.

The crackdown on Radical Unity is among several recent, high-profile cases involving hate speech and racism in France. Two years ago, a French judge ordered the American internet portal Yahoo to restrict access by French servers to a page selling Nazi-era memorabilia. But last year, a California court decided the French ruling could not apply to a U.S.-based business and that it violated free speech protected by the American Constitution.

Last November, a French court also fined a former French general and his editors for publishing a book detailing torture and executions committed during Algeria's war of independence. The plaintiff, the Paris-based Human Rights League, argued that general Paul Aussaresses violated French law by, quote, "justifying war crimes" in his unapologetic book. But critics, notably in the United States, suggested the case once again smacked of censorship.

More recently, French human rights groups filed charges against Italian writer Oriana Fallaci for a best-selling book criticizing Islam. One anti-racist group wants the book banned from France altogether. Two others, including the Human Rights League, simply want disclaimers that the book's disparaging passages on Muslims don't accurately reflect the Islamic religion.

Michel Tubiana is a lawyer and president of the Human Rights League. He says his group defends free speech. But even free speech has limits.

Mr. Tubiana says Americans and French have different conceptions of liberty. Defending hate speech, he argues, is a false concept of free expression. It violates the rights of others, he says, and amounts to a failure in democracy.

At the same time Mr. Tubiana does not completely agree with the recent decision to ban Radical Unity and its Internet site. He says France cannot fight against extremism just by outlawing a group.

France is not the only European country fighting extremism, particularly since last September's terrorist attacks, and the political rise of far-right parties in Europe.

Germany has banned 23 extremist groups over the past two decades. Spain is trying to ban the Batasuna Party, considered the political wing of the Basque terrorist group ETA.

Last November, the 43-member Council of Europe stirred furor when it added an annex to its Cybercrime convention, targeting hate and racist speech on the Internet.

Next month, Reporters Without Borders plans to publish a study on more than 80 countries it claims have curbed free speech on the Internet since September 11.

Some internet rights advocates, like Meryem Marzouki, are also worried about a new security law adopted by the French parliament last month.

Mrs. Marzouki says the French legislation may pave the way for law enforcement officials to acquire more information on Internet surfers and open new avenues for abuse. Other groups say the law is vague. They will wait to see if the government adopts specific Internet measures.

Meanwhile, Radical Unity is plotting its future. Members vow they will reorganize, perhaps as a political party. The group quickly established a new, Canada-based internet site last week, called Dissolution U-R. Although the site was out of service this weekend, surfers were posted to yet another web page. On it, Radical Unity announced, quote, "the fight will go on."