EU court criticizes France for fining man over Sarkozy insult

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrives at the Parc des Princes Stadium to attend the French Ligue 1 soccer match between Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique Lyon in Paris, December 16, 2012. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - France violated a demonstrator’s freedom of expression when it fined him for insulting former President Nicolas Sarkozy, Europe’s top human rights court ruled on Thursday.

Leftist activist Herve Eon was convicted in 2008 and given a 30 euro ($39) fine after holding up to Sarkozy’s car a banner with the words “Get lost, jerk.”

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) deemed the punishment disproportionate and a violation of freedom of expression, as the act was a “satirical remark.”

The words on the banner were those Sarkozy himself had directed earlier at a member of the public who refused to shake his hand hand during France’s annual farm fair.

Sarkozy’s choice of words ignited a media firestorm, with critics saying his taunt was vulgar.

The ECHR said a French appeals court had acknowledged that Eon’s comments constituted “criticism of a political nature” for which “freedom of expression was of the highest importance.”

France, now under President Francois Hollande, can appeal for the decision to be reviewed by the court’s Grand Chamber. ($1 = 0.7722 euros)

Reporting By Gilbert Reilhac; Writing by John Irish; Editing by Alistair Lyon