Casse-toi, pov’ con!

In Eon v. France the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR; judgment available only in the French language) ruled that the remark “Casse toi, pov’ con” against the then President Sarkozy was a permitted expression. The sentence may be best translated as “get lost, you poor loser”. In this judgment the ECtHR has confirmed the right to satire and has emphasized that the right of citizens to participate in a political debate merits broad protection too.

Hervé Eon is a French activist. In 2008, Eon waived a sign with the text in question towards the president. Eon was arrested immediately and later charged for insulting M. le Président. Why did he use this particular sentence? Because it had been elaborately discussed in the press before that Sarkozy had used this same sentence when a farmer refused to shake his hand at an agricultural conference. After this incident, the sentence obtained a particular status in France.

In two instances Eon was convicted in France for insulting the head of state. Further, due to the weakness of his case (in the opinion of the French government), he was refused legal aid. Eon then went to the European Court in Strasbourg.

Importance of Public Discussion Outside the Media

The ECtHR took as a starting point that “Casse toi, pov’ con” was indeed insulting to Sarkozy. The ECtHR furthermore established that the freedom of the press was not at issue because Hervé is an activist and not a journalist. This being the case, however, the question is whether the limitation of his freedom of expression outweighs “les intérêts de la libre discussion de questions d’intérêt général dans le contexte de la présente espèce“, i.e. whether the limitation of the freedom of speech outweighs “the importance of a free debate on issues of general interest in the present case“. In short, it is true that the freedom of press is not at issue, but the freedom of expression also protects public discussions outside the press.

It is furthermore important that the president was not attacked as a private person. The criticism concerned his political performance. And “les limites de la critique admissible sont plus larges à l’égard d’un homme politique, visé en cette qualité, que d’un simple particulier : à la différence du second, le premier s’expose inévitablement et consciemment à un contrôle attentif de ses faits et gestes tant par les journalistes que par la masse des citoyens ; il doit, par conséquent, montrer une plus grande tolérance.” A politician – unlike an ordinary citizen – knowingly and willingly exposes himself to public criticism and has to accept that his actions will be monitored closely and criticized by both journalists and ordinary citizens.

The Right to Satire

The ECtHR furthermore pointed out that Sarkozy had used the sentence himself and that the media had repeated it many times, often in a humorous way. By using this sentence, Eon chose a satirical form of criticism of Sarkozy. And, as the ECtHR has emphasized, satire is a form of artistic expression and social criticism, which, because of its inherent exaggeration and transformation of the truth, is meant to provoke and to cause commotion. For this reason, every limitation of this freedom of an artist – or of anyone – must be adjudicated with the utmost care.

The criminal-law sanctions imposed on Eon may have a ‘chilling effect’ and may result in others being kept from expressing criticism on social issues in a satirical way.

The ECtHR found for Eon: the limitation of Eon’s right to satire by the French courts was not necessary in a democratic society and therefore does not meet the requirement of Article 10 (2) of the ECHR.