France to punish homophobic and sexist remarks with jail sentences

France moved yesterday towards the creation of a new law which would make sexist or homophobic comments illegal and forbid job discrimination against homosexuals.

France moved yesterday towards the creation of a new law which would make sexist or homophobic comments illegal and forbid job discrimination against homosexuals.

After a muddled late-night debate, in which a number of governing-party deputies made starkly homophobic declarations, the National Assembly gave a second reading to a bill that would create a "high authority" to fight discrimination of all kinds. The bill, which will become law if approved unchanged by the Senate, the upper house, later this month, extends existing penalties for racist abuse to all insults made for reasons of "gender or sexual orientation or handicap".

If the bill is passed, anyone found guilty of making such remarks, verbally or in writing, would risk a one-year prison sentence and a fine of up €45,000 (£31,000). The law, which would make penalties against homophobia and sexism stronger in France than almost any other EU nation, has been pushed very strongly by President Jacques Chirac.

It was, however, stoutly resisted by right-wing members of the President's own centre-right party, the UMP, one of whom said that he could see nothing wrong in homophobia.

Christian Vanneste, the UMP deputy for the Nord département (the Lille region), said that the idea of making "homophobia" illegal was a "contradiction in terms ... This will bolster the notion that homosexual behaviour has the same value as any other kind of behaviour, when, in fact, it is obvious that it is a threat to the survival of humanity."

Christine Boutin, another UMP deputy who has campaigned against homosexual rights, succeeded in persuading deputies, against the advice of the government, to amend the draft law to add insults against "the handicapped".

Mme Boutin's intention was, in part, to imply that homosexuality was a kind of handicap. In the context of a law also forbidding sexist insults, the amendment could also be read to imply that to be a woman is also a kind of handicap.

The proposed law would also make it a criminal offence in France to incite hatred or violence against women or homosexuals and to discriminate against them in employment, accommodation or services.

The haute autorité de lutte contre les discriminations, or Halde (high authority to combat discrimination), created by the law will have a €10.7m annual budget. Such a body was promised by President Chirac in 2002 to help to resist the rise of racist and anti-Semitic behaviour in France.

President Chirac has encouraged the Justice Minister, Dominique Perben, to extend the law, and the powers of the new authority, to sexist and homophobic behaviour. The President is said to have been deeply shocked by an attack in northern France last year in which a homosexual man was set alight by neighbours in a small town.

Outside Paris and other large cities, tolerance for homosexuality in France is low. The marriage of two men in the town of Bègles, near Bordeaux, in June by Noel Mamère, the local mayor and prominent Green politician, produced such an avalanche of hate mail that it was assembled into a book.

In the end, only four UMP deputies voted against the discrimination bill in the early hours of yesterday, but many others abstained or failed to attend. One of these who voted against, Marc de Fur (from Côtes d'Armor in northern Brittany), said the bill was a dangerous concession to a homosexual community which was growing in power and influence. "With concession after concession," he said, "we will end up giving in to them on the most crucial issues, in other words marriage and children."

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