Amid the international row over Scarlett Johansson’s lucrative advertising deal with SodaStream, a Paris court ruling over whether activists may call for a boycott of the Israeli firm’s fizzy drink machines has been largely overlooked.
Or in the case of The Jewish Daily Forward misinterpreted: that newspaper claimed that the court handling the case had delivered a blow to the international campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
To assess the real significance of the 23 January ruling from the Paris court (known officially as the Tribunal for Grand Instances), I analyzed it with the help of Sharon Weill, a lecturer in international law in Paris. We learned that the ruling actually asserts the right of activists to urge a boycott of Israeli goods, including those manufactured by SodaStream.
“Integrity of the customer”
In 2010, the French Palestine Solidarity Association (AFPS) undertook a campaign calling on consumers to boycott SodaStream because the location of the company’s main factory is in Mishor Adumim, an illegal settlement in the occupied West Bank. AFPS warned consumers that SodaStream sold products originating from this factory labeled incorrectly as “Made in Israel.”
The Paris court ruled that AFPS’s boycott campaign was in general not illegal because it aimed “to protect the moral, political or religious integrity of a customer who is sensitive to the cause and arguments of AFPS.” The call for a boycott in itself did not constitute defamation.
In March last year, a criminal court in Nanterre found in a case against SodaStream’s French distributor OPM that the labeling of products originating from SodaStream’s factory in Mishor Adumim as “Made in Israel” did not reflect reality. But the court declared that such labeling did not constitute a criminal act.
The Paris court took the Nanterre ruling into account. It also referred to a European Court of Justice verdict — known as the Brita case — from 2010 that SodaStream products originating from Israeli settlements may not benefit from trade preferences granted to Israel by the European Union. Preferences such as exemptions from trade taxes and customs duties are only supposed to apply to goods produced within Israel’s internationally recognized boundaries and not to goods produced by Israeli firms in the occupied West Bank.
OPM told the Paris court that after the Brita ruling it had contacted the French customs to regulate the situation. Nonetheless, SodaStream continued labeling its goods as “Made in Israel” for a certain period, the Paris court noted.
“The knowledge of the exact origin of a product could be an interest for the consumers,” the Paris court found. In other words, SodaStream could be subjected to a boycott campaign because the customer’s interest to know the exact place of origin of a product should be protected.
However, the court instructed the BDS campaigners to refrain from using words like “illegal” or “fraudulent” in relation to the manufacture of SodaStream products or the distribution of these products in France.
It seems as if French courts are not ready to establish the responsibility of corporations for violations of international law. Last year, a Versailles court took a highly conservative position in a ruling on Veolia’s role in building a tram system for Jewish-only settlements in occupied East Jerusalem. The Versailles court declared that under French law, international humanitarian law had no direct effect on private individuals and companies who are not a party to a conflict.
But a careful reading of the recent Paris judgment suggests that nothing prevents BDS campaigners from stating that SodaStream’s products from Mishor Adumim are “illegitimate” instead of “illegal” and that incorrect labeling is “immoral” instead of “fraudulent.” In France, it is therefore not illegal for the BDS campaign to continue to emphasize the immorality and illegitimacy of SodaStream’s actions.
AFPS was not ordered to end its boycott campaign against SodaStream, but to remove specific claims from its website.
While the French establishment still appears to be in denial about how corporations are assisting the occupation of Palestine, the verdict can nonetheless be interpreted as a vindication for the BDS movement.