John Galliano, the Christian Dior designer caught on tape making anti-Semitic remarks, had his trial this week. Under the law he could face prison and a fine, but prosecutors are just seeking a fine:
Once beloved Dior designer John Galliano is facing a hefty fine of up to $32,000 for spewing anti-Semitic slurs in a Paris cafe, but no prison sentence is being sought. [...]
The 50-year-old designer is charged with "public insults based on origin, religious affiliation, race or ethnicity," a crime which can mean up to six months in prison and up to 22.500 euro ($32,175) in fines.
It's interesting to me that after two celebrity legal processes in the United States involving people famous in France - against Roman Polanski and Dominique Strauss-Kahn - and all I heard from the French elite about how the United States just loves to put people in prison who didn't really do anything (in the words of Jack Lang re Strauss-Kahn allegedly raping a woman, "It's not like a man was killed"), how it's proof that no one can do or say anything in the United States without being put in prison, etc.
I haven't seen any defense of Galliano coming from these corners recently. Perhaps Galliano just didn't have friends in the right places, or maybe hate speech is considered worse than rape.
What I do know is that Galliano wouldn't be prosecuted in the United States for what he said (his multiple addictions, on the other hand...), and that's for the better. Racism and hatred are linked with speech acts and ideas, true, but no one listens to a hate rant from drunk designer on YouTube and becomes an anti-Semite, nor do I know of anyone who became homophobic because they saw a Westboro Baptist Church protester's sign and thought "I've never thought of that before, but what a great idea!" The sort of hate speech that incites hatred, the cold and pseudo-scientific discourses on the inferiority and danger of certain minorities, is the kind of speech that is often not caught in these laws.
Moreover, it's more effective to respond to these forms of hatred instead of pushing them underground. France still has thousands of people in hate groups committing violence with a major political party based on neo-fascism and racism, so hate speech laws seem ineffective, at least on those fronts.
I have heard a few people defend this prosecution (the same sort who think they're experts on puritanism in the United States, which they decry), one (gay) man even saying that he would be glad such laws exist if anyone ever said anything homophobic to him.
The thing is, people actually have shouted homophobic comments at me from their cars when I hold hands with Alberto in public. And, no, I didn't take down their license plate numbers and call the police; violence (which is what arrest and prison are) isn't the appropriate reaction to speech acts. I should probably take it more seriously, but sticks and stones...
It's likely a function of the culture I grew up in, but I just don't get the prosecution of hate speech. The hate speech that matters is the sort of thing that a government body can be trusted to distinguish from legitimate speech. Imagine if Bush had the power to imprison people for their hate speech against the United States in the early days of the Iraq War... or if a far-right state-level attorney general had the power to prosecute gay activists for "anti-Christian hate speech."
But I won't expect Bernard-Henri Lévy to complain about how Galliano's reputation is being dragged through the mud or that the police should concern themselves with solving child hunger in Africa instead. Galliano must have snubbed him at a cocktail party.