Boycott of Israeli goods constitutes incitement to discrimination

left_bannerPress release issued by the Registrar


The European Court of Human Rights has today notified in writing its Chamber judgment1 in the case of Willem v. France (application no. 10883/05) concerning the conviction of the mayor of Seclin for calling for a boycott of Israeli products.

The Court held by 6 votes to 1 that there had been no violation of Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights. (The judgment is available only in French.)

1.  Principal facts

The applicant, Jean-Claude Fernand Willem, is a French national who was born in 1934 and lives in Seclin (France), a municipality of which he was mayor (for the Communist party) at the relevant time. On 3 October 2002, during a session of the town council and in the presence of journalists, Mr Willem announced that he intended to call on his services to boycott Israeli products in the municipality. He stated that he had taken that decision to protest against the anti-Palestinian policies of the Israeli Government. Representatives of the Jewish community in the département of Nord filed a complaint with the public prosecutor, who decided to prosecute the applicant for provoking discrimination on national, racial and religious grounds, under Articles 23 and 24 of the Press Act of 29 July 1881. Mr Willem was acquitted by the Lille Criminal Court but sentenced on appeal on 11 September 2003, and fined 1,000 euros (EUR). He lodged a cassation appeal but was unsuccessful.

2.  Procedure and composition of the Court

The application was lodged with the European Court of Human Rights on 17 March 2005.

Judgment was given by a Chamber of seven judges, composed as follows:

Peer Lorenzen (Denmark), President,
Jean-Paul Costa (France),
Karel Jungwiert (the Czech Republic),
Renate Jaeger (Germany),
Mark Villiger (Liechtenstein),
Isabelle Berro-Lefèvre (Monaco),
Mirjana Lazarova Trajkovska (“the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”), judges,

and also Claudia Westerdiek, Section Registrar.

3.  Summary of the judgment2

Mr Willem took the view that his call to boycott Israeli products was part of a political debate concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and was without doubt a matter in the general interest. He complained that his conviction had thus constituted a violation of his right to freedom of expression within the meaning of Article 10 of the Convention.

The Court observed that the interference with the applicant’s freedom of expression had been provided for by law, being based on Articles 23 and 24 of the Press Act 1881, and that it pursued a legitimate aim, namely to protect the rights of Israeli producers. The Court reiterated that for interference with freedom of expression, especially that of an elected representative, to comply with the Convention, it had to be “necessary in a democratic society”. Like the French courts, the Court took the view that Mr Willem had not been convicted for his political opinions but for inciting the commission of a discriminatory, and therefore punishable, act. The Court further noted that, under French law, the applicant was not entitled to take the place of the governmental authorities by declaring an embargo on products from a foreign country, and moreover that the penalty imposed on him had been relatively moderate. The Court therefore found that the impugned interference had been proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued and that there had been no violation of Article 10.

Judge Jungwiert expressed a dissenting opinion, which is annexed to the judgment.

2 Responses to “Boycott of Israeli goods constitutes incitement to discrimination”

  1. Mark2 Says:

    Can any budding lawyer/constitutionalist tel us the full implications of the judgment?

    Is it binding across the EU (includig the UK), is this a final court of appeal?

  2. Chaim Says:

    A few things to note about this ruling:
    1. There’s a certain irony about the appeal to the Human Rights Court in this case. Consider that had the ruling gone in Willem’s favor we would, in effect, have had a Human Rights Court affirming the right of public officials to enact an anti-Semitic measure. There’d have been greater significance to that than to Willem’s original acquittal in the Lille Criminal Court, not only because the Human Rights Court is a _higher_ court, but also because it’s specifically a _Human Rights_ court.
    2. In response to Mark2 re. the sort of precedent this judgment sets, ideally the rejection by the Human Rights Court of Willem’s appeal would mean that public officials declaring boycotts will have to contend at lower levels (their states’ courts and legislatures) with their states’ anti-discrimination legislation. But somehow I doubt this is even the last mayor who will ever attempt this sort of appeal at the Human Rights Court level, not to speak of non-state officials like union leaders attempting it, if they are ever prosecuted for enacting boycotts.
    3. On the one hand, the French prosecutor would rightly not have prosecuted just any old private citizen declaring a boycott. On the other hand, I imagine that in the UK even an official with powers analogous to Willem’s would not have been prosecuted by the Crown for declaring a boycott. Certainly the Human Rights Court’s ruling isn’t likely to change that, though the ruling is definitely a good result.

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