EXPLAINED: Just how strict are France’s privacy laws?

French police have opened an investigation into paparazzi photos of president Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte on holidays - so what do France's famously strict privacy laws say about these type of snaps?

EXPLAINED: Just how strict are France's privacy laws?
Publishing photographs in France is governed by privacy laws. Photo: Clement Mahoudeau/AFP

Police have opened an investigation into the photos, including one of the President on a jet ski wearing swimming trunks, which appeared as part of an exhibition from paparazzo Thibaut Daliphard in Paris earlier this month.

The Macrons are not the only political figures unhappy about photos of them being published. Far right pundit and possible presidential candidate Eric Zemmour has also filed a complaint against the magazine Paris Match after a photo showing him in the sea, very close to one of his advisors, made the front page.

Zemmour’s lawyer Olivier Pardo told BFMTV he would be pursuing the complaint, since the photos violated the polemicist’s right to privacy, and there was “intent to cause harm” to his reputation.

READ ALSO French police launch investigation into photo of Macron in swimming trunks

It’s not unusual for public figures to take publications to court to defend their right to privacy, but how much are photographers able to get away with?

What the law says

“Everybody has the right to privacy.”

That simple phrase is enshrined in Article 9 of the French Civil Code and the courts’ definition of what constitutes a private life has been pretty broad including love life, friendships, family circumstances, religious or political opinions and state of health.

Within this is the bit that covers photos and videos – it’s called the droit à l’image  (image right) and states that everybody has a basic right not to have images of themselves published against their will.

However, exactly how this is applied – particularly when it comes to public figures – relies on precedent and can get pretty complicated.

When it comes to photos taken in a private space, the photographer usually requires the consent of their subjects when they can be identified. France’s penal code states that taking or publishing a photo of somebody, taken in a private place without their consent, is punishable by up to a year in prison and a €45,000 fine.

It is worth noting that a car is considered a private space, which is why a French court ordered Closer magazine to pay damages to actress Julie Gayet, after publishing a photo of her allegedly on her way to meet then-president François Hollande, with whom she was having an affair.

READ ALSO French farmer filmed in underpants confronting conservationists wins €10k in privacy claim

Journalists and media organisations do have the option to argue that the publication was in the public interest, but the test for this is strict and – as the Gayet case shows – the simple fact of someone having an affair may not meet it.

In public spaces, no particular authorisation is needed if – crucially – a public figure is aware that their photo is being taken or if the image illustrates a newsworthy event.

So you are also allowed to publish photos of public figures on the campaign trail, but paparazzi shots on the beach would be more difficult to justify.

For ordinary members of the public in general consent is required, unless the publication is in the public interest or if the person is pictured as part of a large crowd, for example at a demonstration.

The law on publishing all types of images of under 18s is very strict, while relatives can make a complaint about the use of a dead person’s image if the publication adversely affects their reputation. It’s worth pointing out that ‘publishing’ includes posting pictures on social media.

Test case

It is often said that people in France are more willing to ignore facts relating to politicians’ private lives, and this has traditionally been reflected in the law. But, influenced by the European Court of Human Rights, French courts have in recent decades given increasing weight to the question of whether photos or information published are in the public interest.

Which is what it could come down to in the case of Zemmour.

“What can it do for intellectual and political debate to know how Eric Zemmour swims, how he looks in a swimsuit at the beach?” his lawyer said.

Paris Match on the other hand has argued that Zemmour’s advisor, Sarah Knafo, is key to his rise as a political figure.

Photos regularly published

Considering the strict rules in place to protect privacy in France, it can seem surprising that magazines don’t seem deterred in their pursuit of scoops. Nanterre in Paris’s suburbs has seen a long string of public figures parading through its court over the years seeking compensation for having had their privacy violated.

In 2015, two celebrity magazines were fined for taking photos of Hollande and Gayet at an official country residence in Versailles.

In 2017, a French court ordered Closer to pay €100,000 in damages to Britain’s Prince William and his wife Kate Middleton after publishing topless photos of her in 2012.

Magazines may decide that any potential fine is worth it when compared to the increase in sales a particular scoop could bring. But editors are more likely to cite the public interest when defending their decisions.

“To say we’re ‘making money’ with this subject, that the additional sales cover the damages, that overall we come out ‘on top’… that’s the most demagogic argument used against celebrity magazines in general, and it’s also the most wrong,” Closer’s editorial director Laurence Pieau told Le Point in 2014, after her magazine published photos of Florian Philippot, then vice-president of the far right Front National, with a man it claimed was his partner.

“France has the most restrictive laws on this issue. Damages are much higher than anywhere else. In the United States, people practically never sue, because they consider it to be part of the job.”

Despite the magazine’s claims that the photos were in the public interest due to Philippot’s opposition to gay marriage, Closer was ordered to pay the politician €20,000 in damages.

Presidential photoshoots

The August summer holiday at Bregancon is a long-standing traditional for French presidents and past French leaders had often posed for photographs in an attempt to head off paparazzi, beginning with Charles Pompidou and Valery Giscard d’Estaing in the 1970s.

But while later presidents, including Macron, continued the tradition, paparazzi photographers have staged ever bolder attempts to snap them in private moments.

Both Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande and their partners were also photographed without their knowledge in their swimming trunks in the azure waters lapping at the foot of the fort.

Member comments

  1. Well it appears that France had an unknown president, Charles Pompidou or was he just a stand-in for the real one, Georges Pompidou ?

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Burkina junta chief denies diplomatic split from France

Burkina Faso's junta leader said on Friday his country had not severed diplomatic ties with France, which he has asked to withdraw its forces, and denied Russian Wagner mercenaries were in the country.

Burkina junta chief denies diplomatic split from France

Former colonial power France had special forces based in the capital Ouagadougou, but its presence had come under intense scrutiny as anti-French sentiment in the region grows, with Paris withdrawing its ambassador to Burkina over the junta’s demands.

“The end of diplomatic agreements, no!” Captain Ibrahim Traore said in a television interview with Burkinabe journalists. “There is no break in diplomatic relations or hatred against a particular state.”

Traore went on to deny that there were mercenaries from the Wagner Group deployed in Burkina Faso, even as the junta has nurtured ties with Moscow.

Wagner, an infamous Russian mercenary group founded in 2014, has been involved in conflicts in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Ukraine.

“We’ve heard everywhere that Wagner is in Ouagadougou,” he said, adding that it was a rumour “created so that everybody would distance themselves from us”.

“We have our Wagner, it is the VDP that we recruit,” he said, referring to the Volunteers for the Defence of the Homeland civilian auxiliaries. “They are our Wagner.”

He said that “all the people want is their sovereignty, to live with dignity. It doesn’t mean leaving one country for another.”

Paris confirmed last month that its special forces troops, deployed to help fight a years-long jihadist insurgency, would leave within a month.

Bloody conflict

A landlocked country in the heart of West Africa’s Sahel, Burkina Faso is one of the world’s most volatile and impoverished countries.

It has been struggling with a jihadist insurgency that swept in from neighbouring Mali in 2015. Thousands of civilians, troops and police have been killed, more than two million people have fled their homes, and around 40 percent of the country lies outside the government’s control.

Anger within the military at the mounting toll sparked two coups in 2022, the most recent of which was in September, when 34-year-old Traore seized power.

He is standing by a pledge made by the preceding junta to stage elections for a civilian government by 2024.

After the ruling junta in Mali forced French troops out last year, the army officers running neighbouring Burkina Faso followed suit, asking Paris to empty its garrison.

Under President Emmanuel Macron, France was already drawing down its troops across the Sahel region, which just a few years ago numbered more than 5,000, backed up with fighter jets, helicopters and infantry fighting vehicles.

About 3,000 remain, but the forced departures from Mali and Burkina Faso — as well as the Central African Republic to the south last year — underline how anti-French winds are gathering force.