France targets online hate in new anti-racism campaign

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe at the Paris immigration museum before announcing his anti-racism plan
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe at the Paris immigration museum before announcing his anti-racism plan GERARD JULIEN / AFP

France is to get tough with online hate speech in a new national campaign against racism and anti-Semitism, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said on Monday. The plan, which has yet to be agreed in its definitive form, comes after a rise in anti-Semitic and Islamophobic incidents in the wake of the 2015 Paris terror attacks.


"What annoys me is that it seems to be easier today to take down a pirate video of a football match than anti-Semitic speech," Philippe commented while presenting the three-year plan at the Museum of the History of Immigration in Paris in the company of seven of his ministers.

Anything that is published and distributed in France is subject to French law, the prime minister insisted.

To fight online hate the government is considering:

  • Pushing for a European law to force hate content to be taken down more quickly and hold providers to account;

  • Heavy fines for providers who do not take down racist content within 24 hours, as in Germany;

  • Forcing content providers operating in France to have legal representation here;

  • Closing accounts that repeatedly send hate messages to a large audience;

  • Allowing investigators into racist and anti-Semitic content to use pseudonyms;

  • Increasing the powers and personnel of the Pharos online watchdog;

  • Seconding people sentenced to community work to NGOs to monitor hate content.

For victims the government is proposing:

  • To try out a network of specially trained magistrates and investigators from September this year;

  • To examine the possibility of victims defining their case as racially motivated, as is done in the UK;

  • To extend the online service for preparing legal complaints to racial discrimination, incitement to discrimination and racist abuse;

  • A website to help victims.

On anti-racist education it proposes:

  • The education ministry and the government's anti-racist unit, Dilcrah, will try out a rapid-intervention unit to back up teachers and other people facing conflict situations;

  • A national prize for young people fighting racism and anti-Semitism, to be named after Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish man who was kidnapped and murdered by a the so-called "Gang of Barbarians" in 2006;

  • Improved training in preventing and handling racist and anti-Semitic acts for public servants;

  • Increased awareness of the history of slavery and its abolition, especially in France's overseas territories;

  • A campaign to increase awareness of racism in sport.

A three-person committee will examine the proposals and help prepare a plan, which is to run from 2018 to 2020.

Successive government plans

This is far from the first anti-racist campaign by a French government.

The previous government under Manuel Valls - a Socialist at the time - launched one in 2015.

Only half of its proposals were put into effect, according to the Huffpost website, and some, such as legal representation for providers, resurface in the latest plan.

In 2013 Valls's predecessor, Jean-Marc Ayrault, announced measures to beef up a previous plan launched by right-wing prime minister François Fillon in 2009.

As far back as 2003, then president Jacques Chirac set up a committee to combat racism and anti-Semitism, which became the Interministerial Delegation for the Fight against Racism, Anti-Semitism and anti-LGBT Hate (Dilcrah) in 2012.

Hard to judge effect

It is difficult to judge the efficacy of these various initiatives.

In February an official report noted a 16 percent fall in racist incidents, although not in assaults, in 2017.

That was compared to 2016, which also saw a decline.

But that was compared to a peak of 2,000 incidents reported in 2015 in the wake of the Paris terror attacks and the 2014 Gaza conflict.

And, as the government clearly realises, the internet has led to a far wider circulation of hate speech.

Hate speech and freedom of expression

So it is impossible to judge how much effect official campaigns have on trends that are heavily influenced by external factors.

There is also confusion as to how to define the phenomenon.

Valls, for example, insists that anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism and ministers seem to be at pains to mention anti-Semitism but less keen to mention prejudice against Muslims, black people or Roma.

Some right-wingers complain of "anti-white racism" and "Cathophobia", while others claim their freedom of expression is being stifled by the "politically correct".

Some of the government's proposals certainly extend the state's ability to intervene in public debate and may well give rise to accusations of censorship.

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