French president Nicholas Sarkozy has called for legal reform to decriminalise defamation following a case in which a former newspaper editor was arrested, detained and strip-searched.
Vittorio de Filippis, a former editor-in-chief of the French daily newspaper LibÃ©ration, was arrested at his home by three police officers – one of whom called him “worse than scum” – then held at a police station before he was taken before a magistrate.
The Washington Post reported that de Filippis was arrested at 6:40am on 28 November and detained until about 11.30am as part of the police investigation into a two-year-old defamation case.
De Filippis wrote that he was manhandled, handcuffed, humiliated in front of his sons, twice forced to strip and submit to body cavity searches and interrogated without lawyers by an investigating magistrate.
The case prompted an outcry among journalists, lawyers, politicians and others, who condemned the police behaviour as out of place in a country with traditions of the rule of law and freedom of expression.
President Sarkozy has now issued a statement calling for the penal code to be revised so as to decriminalise defamation – a criminal offence in France, punishable only by a fine.
He also called for a new amendment to criminal procedures to make them more human and transparent.
A spokesman at the ElysÃ©e said a commission had been given the task of defining a modernised system of criminal procedure which was more respectful of people’s rights and dignity.
The newspaper Le Monde reported that Sarkozy’s call for reform ran counter to his own government’s approach to law and order.
Media rights group Reporters Without Borders condemned the “coercive methods” the police and court had used, saying they were a sign of “deterioration in press freedom in France”.
“We are outraged by the unacceptable methods used against Vittorio de Filippis and their humiliating nature,” the group said in a statement.
“Such a thing has never before been heard of in France. To treat a journalist like a criminal and resort to practices such as body searches is not only shocking but unworthy of French justice.”
The investigating magistrate, Muriel Josie, refused to explain what had happened.
Police also refused to comment – but the Agence France-Presse news agency quoted police sources as saying that de Filippis was hauled in because he had not responded to a posted summons and that he had suffered rough treatment because he talked back to the “irreproachable” officers who arrived at his door.
De Filippis said in an account of his arrest which appeared in LibÃ©ration the day afterwards that Josie had questioned him about a defamation case brought against the newspaper last year.
It was over an article contributed by an internet commentator and published on LibÃ©ration’s website which described the past legal troubles of Xavier Niel, founder of a French Internet access company called Free.
De Filippis was editor-in-chief of LibÃ©ration from May to December 2006, when the article appeared, and so was responsible under French law.
But he wrote that Josie’s main complaint was that she had resorted to an arrest warrant because he had ignored the summons she sent in the post.
He had told her that he routinely sent all communications about the case to his lawyers, whose names and telephone numbers were in the directory.