An open letter, ‘Against censorship, action!’, signed by 20 organisations and published by the French organisation Observatoire de Liberté de Dréation on 24 March 2014, has focussed attention on the ongoing challenges of censorship in French arts and culture.
The letter denounces what it calls a “legal arsenal” used by ultra-conservative groups to prosecute, sanction or limit artistic expression. The signatories call on the French president François Hollande to honour his electoral engagements by reviewing postwar legislation in order to “guarantee the freedom to creation and release works of art.”
By Daniel Brown
Censorship is a habit France has renewed with at regular intervals in its post-revolutionary era. Freedom of expression was established and defended by articles 10 and 11 of the 1789 Declaration of Human Rights which heralded it as one of the “precious” rights offered to humanity. But, 21 years later, Napoleon re-established state censorship and the 19th century is littered with examples of French writers, poets and musicians at the wrong end of the Napoleonic decree.
The following century featured repeated clampdowns on the media and artists, usually coinciding with conflicts of varying intensity. These include a 1955 law voted during the war in Algeria which, to this day, authorises the Interior ministry to take “all measures to guarantee control of the press and radio”.
But it is laws voted back in 1881 and 1949 which have recently fuelled the protests led by the Paris-based Observatory for Creative Freedom. In its 11 years of existence, this NGO has repeatedly demanded that certain articles of these laws be annuled or that works of art be excluded from prosecution.
Indeed, articles 14 of both laws, as well as articles 227-23 and 227-24 of the penal code, allow the French authorities to ban works they deem pornographic, harmful to national security or a threat to children’s morality. Matters have come to a boil in the past three years, particularly in the world of cinema and contemporary arts, provoking the 20 NGOs into publishing the open letter in March 2014.
“During the (presidential) campaign,” the letter goes, “candidate François Hollande publicly committed himself with the Observatoire de la Liberté de Création on 12 May 2012 to ‘completely review the current legislation’, denouncing the attacks and criticism of artistic expressions and saying it is time to ‘cease’ prosecutions of exhibition curators or self-censorship of elected representatives.”
“It is time to act,” the writers conclude before enumerating the list of legislative modifications it has been demanding in order to “guarantee the freedom to create and to share the works of art” with the general public.
“The recent upsurge in attacks against artists and their works,” confides Isabelle Parion, one of the oldest members of the Observatoire, “is actually linked to these ultra-conservative offenses against gay marriage, led by groups like Civitas. It has a created a state of mind whereby artists are attacked over questions of morality and public security.”
Parion’s colleague, the lawyer Agnès Tricoire, had been called upon to defend one such artist, Steven Cohen, the very week Freemuse contacted her organisation. Cohen had been arrested in September 2013 and accused of “sexual exhibition” as he was performing partially-clothed at the Trocadéro square opposite the Eiffel Tower.
“It reflects the excessive zealotry of the police force,” pursued Parion: “Tricoire has asked for a not-guilty verdict and the prosecutor did not seem too harsh, asking for a suspended fine of €1,000 euro only. If we win, it will show that our justice system is not caught up in the hysteria that is being fomented by a few marginal groups in their campaigns to ‘protect the youth’ or certain ‘moral standards’.”
In the letter, the Observatoire listed a long series of attacks against artists and their works over the last decade. Most have involved films and include major commercial releases such as ‘Nymphomaniac’ volume I and II. These have been refused what the French call “exploitation visas” for general public viewing. These visas, delivered by the Ministry of Culture, can seriously curtail the success of a film should it impose age restrictions of 16 or 18 years old, which was the case the two Lars von Trier films.
The Observatoire claims the Classification Commission is being swayed by groups with a confessional leaning such as Promouvoir. This assocation, with close ties to the extreme-right National Front party, also spearheaded an unsuccessful attempt to raise the age restriction for La vie d’Adèle (Cannes film festival Golden Palm 2013) from 12 to 18 years old.
“France is the only country where a government-controlled visa can be used to censor a film,” claims Parion. “In the past, it was rarely used and we had the reputation of being one of the world’s most open-minded nations in the world of cinema. This is no longer the case, and countries as different as Spain and Hungary are seen as more liberal than we are.”
However, Parion tempers her criticisms when looking back at the past decade of militancy in defense of French-based artists and their works:
“The tendency is for artists to now feel less isolated and better protected,” she explains. “The general public is more aware of what modern art is all about. The vast majority do not believe that modern works such as Eric Pougeau’s exhibition Infamilles, the play Golgota Picnic (Rodrigo Garcia) and Sur le concept du visage du fils de Dieu (Romeo Castellucci) – all recently attacked by these far-right lobbies – are a threat to morality or to children,” the film producer insists. “There’s been a lot of progress in that sense.”
Other indications of a growing and healthy debate on censorship have included the holding of a major international symposium in the French capital in February called ‘Censorship, yesterday and today’.
“The originality of this project,” explain the organisers, “is our attempt to have a comparative approach between nations cutting across different forms of expression.” The three-day gathering brought together academics and activists (including Freemuse) in debates that included censorship in French literature by papal authorities, erotic clandestine publications in Spanish history, and challenges to the modern world posed by Wikileaks and the Arab revolutions.
Music festival theme: prohibition
And then there is programming of the Ile de France music festival for autumn 2014 under the banner ‘Taboos: music and prohibition’.
“We choose our themes according to their resonance with contemporary issues,” explains festival director Olivier Delsalle. “Censorship has deep roots. (But) discussing them proves they are not just part of History. Questions of morality, religion or political control makes some of these prohibitions a very modern issue.”
The 38th edition features music forms and their representatives from the four corners of the earth. They include groups playing the rebetiko (Greece), maloya (Reunion Island) and cabarets (Germany).
“But the festival, based on the principle that music is not an isolated art-form, will organise conferences and round-tables on the theme (of taboos),” pursues Delsalle, “from a sociological, political, historical and philosophical point-of-view.”
The event, beginning on 6 September 2014, will offer the public what it calls “a musical voyage over 800 years of music and its history, through different repertories reflecting the power of musical expression and the way the authorities and clergy apprehended them.”
An approach that ARTSFEX, the global network in support of artistic freedom of expression, and Freemuse subscribe to. Indeed, we are programmed to contribute to the debate with the aim of, in the words of the organisers, “faire bouger les lignes” (make attitudes evolve).