A bill that criminalizes “sexist and homophobic” remarks was approved by the French government yesterday, despite criticism from groups noting that insulting women would still be legal.

The legislation, which parliament will consider next month, would make “incitement to discrimination, hatred or violence against a person on the basis of gender or sexual orientation” punishable by a year in prison and a fine of up to $54,000.

“This law will put the fight against homophobia on the same level, in terms of possible legal action, as the fight against racism and anti-Semitism,” Justice Minister Dominique Perben told reporters after a weekly cabinet meeting.

President Jacques Chirac said he hoped the law would “bring to an abrupt end these very serious acts,” according to his spokesman.

The bill’s inspiration came from an attack on a homosexual man in northern France in January, Sebastian Nouchet, who was sprayed with gasoline

“This law is in some way the Nouchet law,” said Perben.

The press-freedom watchdog Reporters without Borders criticized the proposal as “a real step backwards” that could stifle opinion, Reuters reported.

Also, two associations representing magazine publishers argued giving special protection to women and sexual minorities was “an open door to other demands that could lead to a total anesthetization of public debate.”

The draft bill also came under fire from feminists and teachers groups who contend it creates a legal hierarchy of insults, favoring homosexuals.

The feminist group Chiennes de garde, or Guard Bitches, said it would be dangerous “to send a signal that it is less serious to insult a woman because of her sex than to insult people because of their sexual orientation,” according to Reuters.

“Calling someone a dirty dyke or a fag would become a serious insult in legal terms while there would be no punishment for calling someone a whore or a slut,” the group wrote in a statement published in the daily Le Monde.

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