(LifeSiteNews) — The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has awarded almost 10,000 euros ($9791 US) in damages and legal costs to a former “Femen” member, Eloïse Bouton, on the grounds that her right to “freedom of expression” was violated by the French courts that condemned her for her shocking “topless” intrusion into the Parisian church of La Madeleine shortly before 10 a.m. on December 20, 2013.
The European judges decided that the French government, the defendant in the case, must pay 2,000 euros in damages and a further 7,800 euros to cover Bouton’s legal expenses because she received too heavy a penal sentence for acts that were intended to express a political opinion.
At the time of Bouton’s “performance” in front of the main altar of La Madeleine, France had only just emerged from months of confrontation between proponents and opponents of same-sex “marriage,” which became law in May 2013. For more than a year, all over Europe, female members of the originally Ukrainian feminist organization “Femen” had intruded upon public events and symbolic Christian locations, bare-breasted and displaying offensive slogans painted on their bodies.
Eloïse Bouton, a freelance journalist working for the mainstream press who later left Femen in 2014, was the star of the event planned by the group to demand the protection of abortion “rights.” Accompanied by a dozen journalists, including a writer for the major news service Agence France Presse, she entered La Madeleine during a choir rehearsal, stripping to the waist and placing a light-blue veil on her head together with a “crown” of red flowers.
The words “344e salope” (an obscene expression denoting a promiscuous woman) were painted in red on her chest, in reference to a manifesto by 343 self-proclaimed “salopes,” including celebrities, who admitted in 1971 to having had illegal abortions in order to put pressure on the authorities to legalize the killing of unborn babies. Abortion would be decriminalized in France soon after, in December, 1974.
On Bouton’s back were painted the words: “Christmas is canceled.”
She “simulated an abortion” and then stood facing the nave with arms outstretched as if crucified, bearing bloody chunks of beef liver in both hands. According to the parish priest of La Madeleine, she also urinated on the altar steps although this point was never confirmed. Bouton was arrested and taken into police custody for a few hours before being charged with “indecent exposure,” called “sexual exhibition” in the French penal code.
The reason for this choice of indictment is that French law does not criminalize desecration of sacred objects as such, or blasphemies; at most, it allows the prosecution of religious discrimination, calls for “hatred” or defamation insofar as they affect believers of a given creed.
Photos of the “performance” were immediately posted online, while Femen issued a statement:
“Christmas is canceled! From the Vatican to Paris. Femen’s international drive against the Catholic lobby’s anti-abortion campaigns continues, the holy mother Eloise has just aborted Jesus’ embryo on the altar of the Madeleine.”
Bouton herself published an article in the left-wing magazine Le Nouvel Observateur two days after the event, in which she called the pieces of meat “symbols of the aborted infant Jesus,” adding that she “left the bloody holy fetus at the foot of the altar.”
One year later, on December 19, 2014, she was condemned by the criminal tribunal of Paris to a one-month suspended prison sentence and ordered to pay the parish’s representative 2,000 euros in damages plus 1,500 euros to cover the plaintiff’s legal costs. LifeSite commented at the time that the sentence was “hardly a slap on the wrist” for the woman who desecrated the Parisian church.
Her recourse against the judgment was initially unsuccessful. On February 15, 2017, the Paris Court of appeal confirmed it in every detail, rejecting Bouton’s repeated plea that her “topless” intrusion into the church was never intended as “sexual exhibitionism” but as a political statement, using her naked breasts as a “weapon.” She had recognized that she hoped to “shock” and “offend the decency” of those Catholics who would witness the event because of the Church’s stance against abortion.
In January 2019, the Court of Cassation, one of France’s courts of last resort, confirmed the first instance and appeal decisions in its turn, noting that the “motives” invoked by Bouton to justify the indecent exposure for which she was sentenced were “irrelevant.” It invoked article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights which protects citizens’ rights to practice their religion without being disturbed.
Bouton argued throughout the proceedings that going topless for a political reason has no sexual overtones because her chest was not a “sexual object” in the context – a claim rejected by the Court of Appeal, in particular because in reply to a judge’s questions, she admitted that if anyone were to touch her breasts without her consent that would constitute a “sexual aggression.”
The Court of Appeal took care to justify its decision, saying that while it was true that “Eloïse Bouton exhibited her breasts, without accompanying her action with an obscene gesture, she committed her action in a religious building, a place of prayer and meditation, at the entrance of which it is recalled that anyone entering the premises, whether a believer, atheist or agnostic, is obliged to observe decent dress.”
The judges added: “Eloïse Bouton acted without the slightest authorization from the parish priest, who is the assigned occupant of the religious building; (…) finally, the evolution of morals, conceptions of art and the notion of modesty cannot be taken into consideration to justify an act and attitudes committed in a religious building by Eloïse Bouton, who claims to have used her breasts as a weapon; (…) moreover, the exhibition was imposed in full view of others and in a place accessible to the gaze of others, the Madeleine church being open to the public at the time, the acts … (. …) were committed during the rehearsal of the Madeleine vocal ensemble in the vicinity of the altar and in the presence of the choirmaster, Mr [M.], who intervened firmly to put a stop to them immediately; (…) the exhibition by Éloïse Bouton of the sexual parts of her body also took place in full view of a non-consenting person.”
These are the decisions Bouton took to the European Court of Human Rights, where her counsel argued that she could not have known beforehand that appearing topless in a church could be considered as the delict of “indecent exposure” because it is not precisely described under French law, and because her act was a political statement. Her counsel also maintained that her gesture was not sexual and complained that the one-month suspended prison sentence was far too heavy, implying that she could no longer join “Femen” performances because if found guilty once more of indecent exposure, she would immediately be forced to serve her suspended sentence.
This was a “disproportionate” violation of her liberty of expression, it was argued.
The European Court explicitly placed the affair under the light of article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights that guarantees freedom of expression, thereby affording Bouton a first victory: her action was assessed not in its own right as an undue exhibition of nudity in a place of worship, but as a legitimate means of expressing a political agenda to which limitations may apply, but only to a certain extent.
Its intent, the Court acknowledged, was “to convey, in a symbolic place of worship, a message relating to a public and societal debate on the position of the Catholic Church on a sensitive and controversial issue, namely the right of women freely to dispose of their bodies, including the right to resort to abortion.”
Her act could be considered to have “ignored the acceptable rules of conduct in a place of worship” but, the judges added, the Court was “struck (…) by the severity of the penalty imposed by the domestic courts on the applicant without, however, explaining why a prison sentence was necessary to ensure the protection of public order, morality and the rights of others in the circumstances of the case.”
The ECHR decision went on to observe that “the suspended sentence of one month’s imprisonment imposed on the applicant was a custodial sentence which could be enforced in the event of a new conviction and which had been entered in her criminal record. The seriousness of the criminal penalty imposed was compounded by the relatively high amount of the sum payable by the applicant in respect of civil interest.”
Sticking to its point of view that the desecration of the Madeleine should be considered merely part of an ongoing “debate,” the ECHR decided that the French judiciary overstepped its rights regarding the choice of a punishment because when “freedom of expression” is in play, only the very lightest of sanctions are acceptable according to its own jurisprudence.
The judges also condoned Bouton’s reasoning that the prison sentence handed down by the French courts had no intention of punishing “a violation of freedom of conscience and religion,” even though her provocations were deliberately staged in a church in a way calculated to “offend not only the moral convictions of the religious ministers and those present, but also their religious beliefs.” The French courts set a limit to her freedom of expression without taking into consideration the “meaning” of the inscriptions on Bouton’s body and her explanations regarding the way she staged her act and the “meaning” Femen members give to their nude performances, thereby failing to balance the religious rights and freedom of expression that were in play, said the ECHR.
The European Court concluded that “the interference with the applicant’s freedom of expression by the suspended prison sentence imposed on her was not ‘necessary in a democratic society’.”
In practice, Bouton’s suspended prison sentence was not sufficiently heavy to have a dissuasive effect: one year after Bouton’s deliberate provocation, calculated to shock and hurt Catholics while obtaining wide media coverage, and less than 24 hours after the sentence was first handed down, another member of the Femen group entered the church of the Madeleine where, stripped to the waist and wearing the same blue veil and a crown of red flowers, she mounted the steps of the main altar and displayed the inscription “345e salope” on her nude chest.
She was accompanied by another topless member of the Femen group and a photographer. Both women were ushered to the exit and the parish priest filed a complaint, but to date no action has been taken by the judiciary authorities.
Now that the ECHR has made clear that such actions may receive only the very lightest of sanctions, Femen members have no reason to fear committing repeat offenses.