France took a step closer to banning homophobic and sexist speech early Wednesday when a draft bill that critics say could infringe on free speech cleared an important parliamentary hurdle. The national assembly approved the draft law in an overnight vote, paving the way for a final reading by the senate, France's upper house of parliament, later this month. If the bill is passed, anyone found guilty of making hateful or defamatory remarks against a person on the basis of sexual orientation or gender would risk
up to a year in jail and a 45,000-Euro (approximately US$60,000) fine.
Minister of Justice Dominique Perben has defended the law as necessary to combat a rise in homophobia. But the bill--part of the conservative government's fight against hate crimes--has drawn opposition even from within the ruling party, the Union for a Popular Movement. Several UMP lawmakers had pushed for an amendment to water down the bill, but it was not accepted. "What is at risk is both freedom of expression and the principle of equality," Christian Vanneste, a UMP deputy and one of the bill's critics, said during the debate. Gay rights groups support the bill as necessary to guarantee that crimes against gays receive the same treatment as acts of racial discrimination.