French Slap Back at 'Happy Slappers'


March 8, 2007 — -- Happy slappers beware -- the French are on to you.

A new law in France makes it illegal to film any acts of violence and post the offending images or videos online.

The only problem is that France doesn't actually have much of a happy slapping problem.

The "happy slapping" phenomenon originated in Britain, where young people (or "yobs" as they are called by locals) film their friends committing acts of assault and then distribute the videos for entertainment via mobile phones and the Internet.

But, unlike the United Kingdom, where 200 such attacks inside London trains were recorded by police over a six-month period, French police have logged only about 20 similar cases since 2005.

As Fabrice Tassel, society editor of the French paper Liberation, told, "Calling happy slapping a phenomenon in France is a bit excessive."

So, why the hurry to establish this new law?

Critics contend that the new provision focuses more on protecting the police in the event of police brutality than on safeguarding citizens.

During the 2005 riots in the suburbs of Paris and other cities, several amateur citizen journalists captured the goings-on on camera, broadcasting the clashes to the world.

Now, any such attempts to document violence will mean only two things -- a fine of nearly $100,000 and the possibility of spending up to five years in prison.

The new provision -- an amendment to the 1881 law on the freedom of the press -- is part of right-wing French presidential candidate Nicholas Sarkozy's effort to press for more police freedom in dealing with youth violence. Sarkozy, who is the minister of the interior (and effectively, the head of police) was at the forefront of 2005's riots, calling for more police support to tackle what he termed the "scum" of the suburbs.

Unsurprisingly, the new law has invited fierce criticism from advocates of press freedom.

La Ligue Odebi, an organization concerned with protecting freedom of expression on the Internet, released a statement online, stating that the new law "makes France the Western country that most infringes on freedom of expression and information -- particularly on the Internet."

La Ligue Odebi also noted that the law was approved on the 16th anniversary of the notorious L.A.P.D. beating of African-American motorist Rodney King. The resulting images captured on video by a bystander that March night prompted a national outcry across the United States.

Under this new law, such video would not only be inadmissible as evidence, but its very existence would be deemed a crime.

Julien Pain, of the international organization Reporters Without Borders, told from the group's French offices that the new law has "given a lot of power to the police." That said, "If a blogger posted a video of police brutality online, a judge would never condemn him under the French justice system. However, if a blogger thinks that he might face condemnation for doing so, then he will probably hesitate before filming or posting such a video."

Sarkozy spokesman Franck Louvrier told The Associated Press that such concerns are unfounded, because this law "targets 'happy slapping' operations, and a judge will know how to apply the law."

"A journalist is a journalist; a citizen is a citizen," he added.

Unfortunately, with the advent of camera phones and the success of citizen-journalist blogs, such distinctions are becoming increasingly arbitrary.

One of the best-known bloggers in France, Loic Le Meur, told The Associated Press that "the distinction between professional and amateur journalists is getting harder to make out."

And Sarkozy should know, he's hired Loic Le Meur to work on his presidential campaign.

ABC News' Maeva Bambuck contributed to this report.

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