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French Jewish Leader Seeks to Moderate Hate Speech Law

A human rights commission headed by a leader of France’s Jewish community has advised Justice Minister Jacques Toubon to tone down controversial new legislation aimed at toughening the country’s hate speech laws.

Toubon had asked the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights to give an opinion on the measure, which would make anyone issuing a statement against “an ethnic group, nation, race or religion” liable to a year in prison and a $60,000 fine.

Sanctions would increase to two years in prison and a $100,000 fine if the remark were judged to incite discrimination, hatred or violence.

The bill was widely criticized — on the left as well as within the government’s center-right coalition — as threatening freedom of speech by allowing courts too much of a free hand in interpreting what constitutes a racial statement.

The human rights commission — headed by Jean Kahn, president of the Consistoire, the body responsible for the religious needs of France’s 600,000– strong Jewish community — praised Toubon’s proposal to stiffen existing anti- racism laws.

But in its opinion, reached in a vote of 30-3, the commission appeared to agree with the proposed measure’s critics and suggested that the bill’s wording only refer to “statements with a racist character.”

Citing the French Constitution’s protection of freedom of opinion, the commission said: “Out of respect for this fundamental freedom, the legislator can only intervene to protect democratic public order against manifestations of racism or xenophobia that are endangering it.”

Toubon proposed the new legislation after extreme-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen said in a radio interview last month, “To say that the races are unequal is a fact, an unremarkable statement.”

Inciting racial hatred is a crime in France, which, along with Germany and Belgium, has some of the most stringent laws against espousing racial hatred in the 15-nation European Union.

But Toubon found last month that existing laws were too vague to prosecute Le Pen.

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