French court backs U.K. royals on topless photos

Sep 18, 2012, 11:07 AM EDT
REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

NANTERRE, France (AP) — A French court ordered a magazine publisher to hand over all digital copies of topless photos of the Duchess of Cambridge within 24 hours and blocked further publication of what it called a "brutal display" of William and Kate's private moments.

Under the ruling Tuesday, the publisher of the French gossip magazine Closer faces a daily fine of 10,000 ($13,100) if it fails to hand over the photos featured in Friday's "world exclusive" issue of Prince William's wife Kate. The photos were taken without authorization during the royals' vacation at a private residence in southern France.

The court also handed out an injunction to stop Closer France from republishing the offending pictures — including on its website and its tablet app — as well as re-selling them.

A statement Tuesday from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge said they "welcome the judge's ruling." Maud Sobel, a lawyer for the royal couple, described it as "a wonderful decision."

"We've been vindicated," Sobel said.

Although the decision was seen as a victory for the royals, it only affects the 14 partially clad snapshots of Kate that were in Friday's edition. It's unclear if Closer France possesses more pictures — but if they did they could technically go on and publish them, as the ruling has no power over that.

In any case, if the royal family had hoped to block international publication, it's already too late. An Italian publication "Chi," published dozens even more racy photos of the duchess in a 26-page spread. An Irish newspaper editor, meanwhile, was suspended after he chose to publish some of the topless photos in the "Independent Star."

Tuesday's ruling only affects the French magazine branch of Mondadori, Closer's publisher, which also faces a 2,000 ($2,600) fine.

"These snapshots which showed the intimacy of a couple, partially naked on the terrace of a private home, surrounded by a park several hundred meters from a public road, and being able to legitimately assume that they are protected from passers-by, are by nature particularly intrusive," the French ruling decreed. "(They) were thus subjected to this brutal display the moment the cover appeared."

The photos showed Kate relaxing at a private villa in Provence, in southern France, sometimes without her bikini top and, in one case, her suit bottom partially pulled down to apply sunscreen.

The case is the first of two parallel legal actions by the British royals. In a reflection of just how intent they are on protecting their privacy — and likely dissuading paparazzi from future ventures — St. James's Palace said family lawyers would be filing a criminal complaint against 'x' — the unnamed photographer who took the pictures.

The criminal lawsuit is thought to be aimed at flushing out the mystery photographer's name and — by targeting the source — allow the royal couple to stop the photos spreading further around the world. If the criminal case goes ahead, 'x' could face a large fine and up to one year in prison.

Christopher Mesnooh, an American lawyer who works in Paris, said French law strongly protects privacy rights but tabloids have their own reasons for publication, even when they might violate the law.

"It appears to give satisfaction entirely to the royal couple," Mesnooh said of Tuesday's ruling.

But he added the amount of damages is nowhere near enough to dissuade the publication of similar photos.

"Damages are no more than 50,000 ($65,270) under French law... If you sell 100,000 copies, you're ahead of the game," he noted.

The ruling listed the royal couple by their full names: William Arthur Philip Louis Mountbatten-Windsor and Catherine Elizabeth Middleton.