Sphere of public opinion is shrinking in France


There is an old saying:  in France, you can say what you like as long as you think like everyone else, and in Germany you can think what you like as long as you speak like everyone else. It is one of those vile shorthands for cultural traits that are often so very true about the general shape of a society. But the essence of it indicates that freedom of speech is a cornerstone of French republican values. I would like to sound (yet again) the warning trumpet that the right to free expression is shrinking in France, and it is not only the government throwing it in the wash.

In July, a blogger who goes by the name L’Irrégulière lost a challenge in court brought by a Cap Ferret restaurant. The blogger had given a negative review to the restaurant, saying it was “to be avoided.” The review came up in the first five results of a Google search of Cap Ferret restaurants, and the restaurant experienced a drop in business. So you might conclude that information is power, and people have a choice of where to spend their money, and that if you want to succeed in business you have to provide a good product and decent service. But the French court ruled that the blogger had defamed the restaurant in an injurious way and hit her with a 1500€ fine plus 1000€ in court costs. You can read the details in the Figaro article here: http://ow.ly/AEO6Q.

That court decision reduced the space for public commentary by introducing the idea that a negative opinion cannot be shared. This follows a series of arrests of demonstrators who have expressed negative opinions in the form of shouting, whistling and booing President François Hollande at public events. In November 2013, at a wreath-laying for WWI, 73 people were arrested. On Bastille Day 2014, 31 people were arrested at the parade, a parade, I must remind readers, that is held to commemorate a revolution against tyranny and oppression. One could not boo the king before the revolution, and now one cannot boo the president after the revolution. Quelle révolution donc?

Now chefs are gathering steam in the kitchen to oppose online reviews of their restaurants. Led by Pascal Favre d’Anne, of Le Favre d’Anne in Angers, they have begun a petition aimed at prohibiting negative opinion: « Nous demandons l’interdiction de juger, de mettre des commentaires diffamatoires, des jugements subjectifs sur les personnes ou tout membre des équipes de nos restaurants. » (« We demand the prohibition of judging, of putting defamatory comments, of subjective judgments of the people or any member of the staff of our restaurants. »)

Apparently a Trip Advisor reviewer made a comment about his wife that he did not appreciate. Back in the day there were other ways of dealing with that. Now the attack is on the ability to have and express an opinion. In an interview, Favre d’Anne said he was outraged that someone with no professional training in food or the restaurant business could give their opinion on the site. If you have a look on TripAdvisor.fr, most of the reviews about his restaurant are very positive. And his complaint about anonymity does not hold water, as the reviewers have a name, often a photograph, and an indication of their TripAdvisor contributions. You can see who is an active reviewer, and who is not (in the interest of transparency, I’m a senior reviewer).

Le Monde jumped into the fray this week http://ow.ly/AEGoo, asking whether online criticism was a form of blackmail. It is not blackmail, it is accountability. You give lousy service, you get taken down for it publicly. You can improve your service, or respond defensively on the website, or try to stifle the free expression of opinion. The last option is the one taken by oppressive cultures with no public sphere, no power of opinion. It was the creation of the public sphere that brought about the downfall of tyranny, and the reduction of its space can only be a step in the wrong direction.