“As a consumer and as a citizen, I refuse to purchase Israeli products so long as Israel fails to respect international law; I am also calling on my fellow citizens to do the same in order to bring pressure upon Israel to dismantle the separation wall and the settlements.”
For having made such statements in the street or in shops, or for having written them in magazines or posted them on the internet, nearly 100 individuals have faced criminal charges in French courts. They are members of organizations that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign. They have been indicted by prosecutors following instructions contained in an internal text issued by the Ministry of Justice on 12 February 2010, the so-called “Alliot-Marie circular”, named after the Minister of Justice, Michèle Alliot-Marie.
The circular requests prosecutors to bring criminal charges against individuals who call for boycotting Israeli goods. It asserts that Article 24, line 8 of the 1881 law on the press allows the punishment citizens or organizations who call for the boycott of goods from a country whose policies they criticise. The circular interprets the law extensively, in contradiction to the principle of the strict interpretation of criminal law.
In fact, Article 24, line 8 of the 1881 law does not refer to the suppression of boycotts, but only of provocations “to discrimination, hatred, or violence against an individual or a group of individuals on the basis of their origins or their belonging or not belonging to an ethnic group, a nation, a race, or a specific religion.”
The Alliot-Marie circular has been criticized by organizations on the grounds of freedom of expression. It has also been criticized by numerous jurists, academics, lawyers, and judges, on the grounds of its content, which misuses a law intended to combat racist and anti-semitic remarks. Certain prosecutors have gone so far as to refuse to call for BDS activists to be found guilty, in spite of the written instructions of their superiors.
In 2012, the Paris appeals court acquitted defendants, considering that the remarks for which they were being tried represented peaceful criticism of the policies of a State. The European Court of Human Rights, for its part, regularly reminds European states that activist groups are entitled to enhanced protection of their freedom of expression when it comes to political issues. Christiane Taubira, the present Minister of Justice, has acknowledged that the Alliot-Marie circular’s interpretation of the law might be considered “unjust” or “abusive”.
These facts, together with the change of parliamentary majority in 2012, led many of us to hope that the absurdity of this situation would lead to a change in policy. But the Alliot-Marie circular of 2010 remains in vigor and criminal charges continue to be brought against BDS activists. France has thus acquired the dubious distinction of being, along with Israel, the only country to criminalize a peaceful and civic initiative which calls for the respect of international law.
Boycott is a peaceful initiative, limited to appeals to the conscience of consumers and retailers. No form of constraint has been applied to customers or retailers in France, or to Israeli producers and supplers. In France, calls for boycott have for decades been a feature of the republic’s political debate. Madame Taubira herself referred to boycotts as a “recognized and public form of activism” and admitted to having encouraged the boycott of South African goods, in the context of an international campaign that no one at the time would have dreamed of criminalising.
Boycott is a civic initiative: it is based on a mobilization of civil society. The BDS campaign began in 2005 at the request of 172 Palestinian organizations and trade unions. It calls on civil society around the world to bring pressure to bear on Israel.
Numerous organizations in France have joined the Palestinian call. Their actions are peaceful, consistent with freedom of expression and address a topic of international importance. Their actions do not discriminate against Israeli citizens; they seek to boycott Israeli institutions and goods in order to change the policies of the state.
Finally, boycott is an initiative to promote respect for international law: its goal is to obtain adherence to United Nations resolutions and the end of actions declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in the Hague, in its opinion of 9 July 2004, namely the construction of the separation wall and of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The mobilization of civil society has been indispensable, because governments have done practically nothing to secure Israel’s respect for international law.
Nothing could be further from the truth than to suggest that the BDS campaign is racist or anti-semitic. This claim is analogous to the rhetoric used in the 1970s and 1980s against anti-apartheid activists, who were compared to irresponsible Marxist-Leninists or anti-white racists. No BDS activist brought to trial since 2010 has been charged with making racist or anti-semitic remarks or with committing racist or anti-semitic acts. It is time to abrogate the Alliot-Marie circular.
The original French version of this article appeared in the print version of Le Monde dated 6 March 2014.