Monday, 31 August 2009

Defense d'Afficher

The strictest laws should be carved in stone not scribbled on thin sheets of brown paper, but fortunately in France this particular message is also written out clearly on walls up and down the country. "Défense d'Afficher: Loi du 29 Juillet 1881". What is this mysterious law though, and why do we see it displayed in the public space so often?

The first thing to note is that it is a law which still exists very much today. If ever you spot this particular piece of text chiselled out on a wall in the country, it will probably be on a public sector building, more often than not a school. What does the message mean though? 'Défense' in this sense means 'it is prohibited to', and 'afficher' relates to the sticking up of advertising posters. The law therefore was introduced to limit the places where such posters could be placed. This though was far from being the principal subject of this particular law.

The Loi du 29 Juillet 1881 is in fact more closely associated with the freedom of the press. It is only the third chapter that concerns the displaying of posters on walls, and yet this short addition to the bill has ensured that it remains one of the most visible laws in France today. The text is the following;

"Dans chaque commune, le maire, désignera, par arrêté, les lieux exclusivement destinés à recevoir les affiches des lois et autres actes de l'autorité publique" (In each town, the Mayor will decide, by decree, the places which will be used exclusively to display papers describing laws and other acts of public authority).

In more revolutionary times, the public authorities needed to ensure that laws were clearly visible and understood by the people, and also to ensure that unofficial messages were kept off the city walls. It also became an offense to damage any such officially displayed texts, and tearing one today could still get you a stiff fine.

At election times you will still see metal boards set up in front of public buildings where candidates can freely post the messages they wish to promote. A law therefore which is over 130 years old and which still applies, but a law which also has a deep legacy in another sphere; the press. The French press has a well-deserved reputation for respecting the privacy of public figures, but in many respects that situation can be directly traced back to this law.

The law gave the press unprecedented freedom to print what they wanted, but at the same time dictated that journalists and editors would become legally responsible for the stories they wrote. This meant that if an article was printed which was seen as inciting people to act unlawfully, or which could be seen as defamation, the journalist and editor would subsequently be tried and punished. No longer could the government repress newspapers they didn't like or prosecute for 'crimes of opinion', but the greater responsibilities given to press people has ensured that even today they err on the side of caution before publishing.

Truly a law which has left a lasting trace on the face of French society!

8 comments:

CarolineLD said...

Thank you, it's good to know the story behind those notices.

lovelyprism said...

Too bad there's no such law in the U.S.

Starman said...

At least, in France (and most of Europe) what the press publishes is hugely truth. You cannot say that about the United States.

Cergie said...

Les villes essaient de limiter les affichages sauvages en début d'agglomération notamment, qui sont si laids et cependant bien utiles lorsqu'on arrive fourbu et qu'on cherche un hôtel pour la nuit. A présent il y a des points d'information (parfois) qui centralisent, c'est bien.
Lorsqu'on regarde les premières photos de Paris, comme celles qui furent exposées à "Paris en couleurs" à l'Hôtel de Ville, ce sont pourtant les affiches qui en font le charme. Ou les panneaux muraux tels que "Dubo-Dubon-Dubonnet"
Encore un beau travail de recherche, Adam. Il y a tant de lois qui sont obsolètes cependant et n'ont pas été abrogées.

Cergie said...

Le fait de refèrer à une loi précise évite cependant d'en énoncer tout le texte.
En France on dit : "nul n'est censé ignorer la loi"

Pierre said...

It is to me one of those strange incongruous notices like, "This page is intentionally left blank."

Auto Accident Attorney Houston, Texas said...

I totally agree with lovely here that there is no such law in US.

chanch5 said...

Remembered from Groucho Marx, "How to be a spy"(then copied and pasted), including spy adventure story set in France :

"...At that point Mandoline's lover, the Count de la Défense d'Afficher, rushed into the room. I had to swallow the blueprints quick, and I must say they were the worst I've ever tasted."

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