France: ‘Councillor v. mayor’ defamation human rights row reaches court judgement

A human rights row, pitting France against a geology teacher over his criminal conviction for defaming a mayor, reaches its court judgement later this week.

The European Court of Human Rights’ decision in the case Lacroix v. France (no. 41519/12) will be announced on 7 September.

The applicant, Michel Lacroix, is a French national who was born in 1964 and lives in Le Broc (France). He is a geology lecturer. At the relevant time he was a municipal councillor in Le Broc town hall.

The case concerns the criminal conviction of a municipal councillor for public defamation against a mayor and his first deputy on account of remarks made by him at a meeting of the municipal council.

As a member of the finance and tenders committees, Lacroix was responsible for monitoring a scheme for the security and improvement of public land on the Clave road.

In 2009, he drew attention to irregularities which, in his opinion, were present in two procurement contracts in connection with the Clave road.

In particular, he sent a letter to the prefect for the Alpes-Maritimes département and to the regional audit office. Subsequently, at a meeting of the municipal council at which an amendment to the contract entered into with the company chosen to carry out the work was due to be discussed, Lacroix accused the mayor and his first deputy of fraud and called for their resignations. His comments were reported by the daily newspaper Nice Matin.

In November 2009, a preliminary investigation was opened by the State Prosecutor into the terms of the public procurement that had been criticised by Lacroix.

In January 2010, the latter sent an email to the Prefect, to which he attached numerous documents, complaining of conduct which he considered to be criminal in nature. Furthermore, Lacroix repeated his accusations in a leaflet distributed in January 2010.

In January 2010, Lacroix was summoned to appear before the Grasse Criminal Court on charges on public defamation on account of the comments he had made during the meeting of the municipal council and in the leaflet.

In September 2010, he was found guilty of the offence of public defamation, on the ground that he had not proved the reality of his accusations. He was ordered to pay a fine of 1000 euros (EUR) and to pay each of the civil parties EUR 1 in respect of damages.

In February 2011, the Aix-en-Provence Court of Appeal held that Lacroix had forfeited the right to bring evidence as to whether the defamatory statements were true and rejected his plea of good faith.

It upheld the first-instance judgment convicting the applicant of public defamation in respect of a citizen responsible for a public service or holding public office. The Court of Cassation declared

Lacroix’s appeal inadmissible.

Relying on Article 10 (freedom of expression), Lacroix complains about his criminal conviction for defamation.

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