The European Human Rights Court ruled on Thursday that a French criminal conviction against activists involved in a campaign to boycott Israeli products had no sufficient grounds, ordering France to compensate 11 people who were part of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
France’s highest appeals’ court in 2015 upheld rulings that convicted campaigners on the basis of inciting racism and antisemitism, but the European court ruled these had violated their freedom of expression. The French government may still appeal the ruling, which could set a precedent affecting BDS activity across the continent.
The EHCR said there was little scope in European conventions for restrictions on political speech and that its very nature was to be controversial and virulent as long as it did not cross the line and call for violence, hatred or intolerance. “The Court considered that the applicants’ conviction had lacked any relevant or sufficient grounds,” the ruling said.
The plaintiffs were sentenced over the distribution of leaflets in supermarkets in the Illzach area in eastern France and wearing T-shirts in 2009 and 2010 calling for the boycott of Israeli goods. In 2013, they were acquitted of inciting discrimination, but were convicted after the prosecutors appealed the court’s initial ruling. Five of them were handed a 1,000-euro ($1,140) fine.
Their legal team appealed to the EHCR, arguing that the call for a boycott was a fundamental principle of freedom of expression. The court ordered France to pay 27,380 euros to each campaigner.
In recent years, the Israeli government has been involved in a global campaign, with the help of local organizations, to promote legislation to limit BDS activity. Israel and its Strategic Affairs Ministry have claimed that anti-Zionism is a form of antisemitism, calling on governments to outlaw BDS groups.
Reuters contributed to this report.