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‘Vin de merde’ case closes in favour of freedom of speech

A French magazine fined two years ago for calling Beaujolais a ‘vin de merde’ has had the original libel decision overturned by the court of appeal.

In what has been termed a victory for freedom of speech, the court found that, in accordance with article 10 of the European Convention, the general public has the right to be given varied opinions on any subject.

The article in question, published in Lyon Mag in July 2002, examined the reasons for Beaujolais producers asking for state aid to turn 100,000 hectolitres of unsold wine into vinegar. The magazine cited François Mauss, head of the Grand Jury of European Tasters, who said that much of Beaujolais wine was ‘not proper wine’ and that its producers were ‘conscious of commercialising a vin de merde’ (a crappy wine).

Originally, the county court at Villefranche-sur-Saône found in favour of the Beaujolais producers whose lawyer described Mauss’s comments as ‘intolerable’. In January 2003 the magazine was ordered to pay €284,143 (now £190,000 / US$346,900) – a fine that, the publishers admitted, would have forced the closure of the magazine.

Although French libel law is notoriously strict, the ruling saw the world’s press swing into action behind Lyon Mag. French broadsheet Le Monde, weekly magazine Le Point, the weekly newspaper Le Nouvel Observateur, the Swiss Tribune de Genève, The Times, The New York Times, the Herald Tribune and other publications all ran articles, often satirical, on the court’s decision.

The fine was later lowered to €90,993 (now £60,750 / US$111,122) by the Lyon appeals court in August 2002.

The case was then taken to the highest court of appeal which found that there was no case for defamation.

‘The publication of criticism, even severe criticism, concerning wine cannot constitute a crime in the context of a public debate on state subsidies given to winemakers and investigations into the causes of overproduction and falling consumption,’ said the ruling.

Inter Beaujolais, the wine trade body of the region, would not comment on the decision.

‘We have not received the full text of the ruling yet, so we can’t comment until then,’ said a spokesperson for Inter Beaujolais.

Lyon Mag, one of the few outspoken provincial monthlies in France, said the decision was a victory for the freedom of press.

‘Winemakers can say their wine is marvellous, but we also have the right to allow experts to say the opposite,’ said Lyon Mag’s editor, Lionel Favrot.

Favrot also highlighted the fact that the original court case took place in Villefranche-sur-Saône, in the heart of the Beaujolais region. In an interview with French news website nouvelobs.com, Favrot pushed for cases involving the press to be held away from the area concerned.

Representatives of the Beaujolais winemakers have been ordered to pay €2,000 (£1,338 / US$2,442) in court costs to Lyon Mag.

Written by Oliver Styles

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