Bloggers Beware! A Too Critical Review Could Bring costly Damages in Bordeaux

The Bordeaux High Court has ordered that a French blogger pay €1500 damages and €1000 in legal costs to the owners of Il Giardino, a seafood and pizza restaurant at Cap Ferret on the Atlantic coast, after she published an unflattering review of a meal experience there.

Il Giardino Restaurant near Bordeaux (Credit Twitter)

Il Giardino Restaurant near Bordeaux (Credit Twitter)

According to a July 9 report on the Arret sur Images website,  Caroline Doudet, a 35-year-old  Orléans-based blogger, who identifies herself on her blog as “L’Irrégulière” and admits to being passionate about Paris (and Cap-Ferret), reportedly sought no legal advice after receiving an unexpected urgent summons to appear before the Tribunal de Grande Instance de Bordeaux on June 30. Instead she conducted her own defence personally in a civil action brought by Mme Virginie and M. Lucien Pellin, the husband and wife team who have owned and run the restaurant in question, for the past 15 years.

The offending review headed “L’endroit à éviter au Cap-Ferret” (A place to be avoided in Cap-Ferret) first appeared on the blog on 24 August 2013 but was taken down by its author after the court case.  A cache version on the Web Archive can still be read here.

The court judgment which, according to Arret sur Images was likely more severe than it would have been had the defendant been represented by a barrister, raises issues about the stoutly-defended principles of free speech in France.

Doudet was later (July 15) quoted  by Eater as saying that she sees this as part of a growing problem around freedom of speech. “Recently several writers in France were sentenced in similar proceedings for defamation, invasion of privacy, and so on. And I find it really serious if we no longer have the freedom to write,” she says. “I don’t see the point of criticism if it’s only positive. It’s clear that online, people are suspicious of places that only get positive reviews.”

‘Maître Eolas’ a wellknown legal blogger and barrister at the Paris Bar, who blogs anonymously for professional reasons, told Arret sur Images he had been surprised by the verdict. The lawyer said: “To my knowledge, this is the first time that such a judgment has been made, particularly against an amateur blogger earning no income from their writing. Without having yet read the original blog I would say that the outcome reflects more the fact that the blogger should have taken legal advice (she chose to represent itself) rather than the setting of any new precedent under Internet law”.  He went on to suggest that the “denigration”charge upheld by the court poses a problem since such a finding requires that “malice” be proved. “In the case of this article, it seems to me it is more a case of perfectly legitimate criticism , ” he said.  (Denigration relates to a product or service while defamation relates to an individual’s reputation),

Asked later by French News Online whether the decision represented a threat to free speech, the barrister, replying via Twitter,  would only say the blogger “should take legal advice”, a response that may suggest an appeal, handled by a competent lawyer, might well produce a different outcome.

According to Arret sur Images one of the restaurant owners told the court that the blog in question “was more of an insult than a critical review. The blogger came once to the restaurant: I remember it very well even though I was serving 300 people that day. The fact that she described one of my waitresses as a ‘harpy’ tells you the kind of article she wrote. I felt I could not let this pass. I admit there may have been some poor service on her table, it does sometimes happen during the August holiday month that I do admit. But this article ranked very high in Google search results for my restaurant and it was harming my business. We have worked very hard here seven days a week for the past 15 years, so I could not accept this. I accept fair and justifiable criticism but there are ways of writing such things and this was not the case here. Now the court has found in my favour and as far as I am concerned the matter is closed,” Virginie Pellin said.

In the contested review on her blog Les Chroniques Cultur’elle which deals with literature, TV and other subjects and has very little to do with cuisine, the blogger had written of the “disorganised service in the restaurant and the attitude of the owner of the premises, whom she called a ‘diva’ .”  All of this over two appetizers … which the blogger had ordered but which despite her efforts only arrived on the table at the same time as the main course she and her guest had ordered was served.

The blogger told Arret sur Images : “The owners did not even ask me to remove the item or amend the headline before they issued an urgent court summons which caught me completely by surprise. I took no legal advice for practical reasons, I did not even have time to find a lawyer! ” she said.

She added however that she did not intend to appeal the decision, and had herself opted to take down the controversial review even though the court had not ordered her to do so.

While clearly this case may have had a different outcome if the defence had been more carefully prepared, until and unless it is clarified by a higher French Court it may raise red flags for others involved professionally or for pleasure  in the business of wine, hotel and restaurant reviews. Then of course there are all those adverse comments visitors leave on sites such as Trip Advisor and elsewhere.

What for instance, and in the light of the reported judgment, might the owners of the Les Terrasses de L’Image and Auberge Reine Jeann restaurants in Saint Remy de Provence say about a June review of their service by Perestrello Geller on the Provence Guru website . Read his entertaining but somewhat acerbic review here and judge for yourself before Bordeaux does.

Story: Ken Pottinger


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10 Responses to Bloggers Beware! A Too Critical Review Could Bring costly Damages in Bordeaux

  1. Pingback: Bloggers Beware! A Too Critical Review Could Br...

  2. DHMCarver July 9, 2014 at 9:45 pm

    There is an old legal saw in the US — A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. I think it applies doubly for a non-lawyer representing him/herself.

  3. Mike Meade July 10, 2014 at 7:12 am

    Even if the verdict was overturned, an appeal with a lawyer would be a Pyrrhic victory at best.
    French courts rarely reimburse legal costs and a lawyer’s fee would probably be more than the 1500 euro penalty.
    BTW, this is perhaps a first for a private blogger but not for the gastronomic press. Beaujolais winemakers won considerable damages from Lyon Mag’ for their criticism of one year’s production.

    • admin July 10, 2014 at 7:24 am

      Thanks Mike. Yes indeed the repercussions of that went all the way to the Supreme Court which overturned the finding, dismissed the damages claim and awarded costs against the winemakers and in favour of Lyon Mag.
      Perhaps someone might take this bloggers case up probono? See more vin de merde details here

  4. Pingback: Comment on Bloggers Beware! A Too Critical Revi...

  5. Gourmande July 19, 2014 at 1:18 am

    She didn’t order two appetizers, but two apertifs. An apertif is a before-dinner drink. It was a Pastis, a very strong anise-flavored drink. It arrived at the same time as the main course, which was steak and pizza, and the blogger and her mom sent them back on the argument that the apertif didn’t go at all with the Pastis!

    • admin July 19, 2014 at 11:31 am

      Thanks for your comment There are differences of opinion over the definition of the two words but here is one “ap·pe·tiz·er n.
      A food or drink served usually before a meal to stimulate the appetite.”
      An apéritif in its French usage can also apply (according to “Les meilleures recettes d’amuse-gueule pour vos apéritifs festives”) to a small dish to whet the appetite, while the word is widely used in English to describe a pre-meal drink . The timeline that prompted the harsh blog is indeed as you describe it.

  6. Gourmande July 21, 2014 at 6:38 pm

    Thanks for your response. Where are you from?

    I’m from the U.S., Boston but have also lived in Texas and California and have never heard appetizer meant to mean a drink. Certainly the word appetizer can be used very broadly as in anything that sets the stage for something else, and I can imagine myself jokingly referring to a drink as an appetizer.

    But in a restaurant I have simply never heard anyone use that term other than to mean a small plate of food.

    I also spend two months a year in France and have never heard apértif mean anything else except something to drink. If a waiter comes and ask you if you want an apértif and you say that yes, please, you would like the foie gras appetizer I reckon he would be just a little bit flummoxed.

    The reason it matters is that the story doesn’t make sense if it’s a food appetizer. That would always have been ordered at the same time as the meal. It’s the apértif which is typically offered by service person 1, so service person 2 who takes your food order presumes you have already been offered that option.

    • admin July 22, 2014 at 6:17 am

      Thank you for your response. Usage of English does indeed differ all around the world (there is no equivalent of the Académie française laying down the rules!) and that may explain the contradictions. The earlier reply did quote web-based dictionaries and sources as justification for the use of appetizer however.

  7. Gourmande July 21, 2014 at 6:50 pm

    And also, in your link, I take read the French to be offering the best recipes for nibbles to accompany your before-dinner drinks.

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