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France: Police use tear gas against protesters at demonstrations against new law

Tens of thousands took to the streets of France on 28 November to protest the new law which makes filming or photographing a police officer a criminal offence. Protestors were met with tear gas and violence from the police.

What is the new law?

Article 24 is an amendment to France’s global security legislation, proposed in October by President Macron’s ‘La République En Marche’ party and its ally, ‘Agir’. The new article makes it an offence to show the face or identity of any officer on duty, “with the aim of damaging their physical or psychological integrity”. It is currently pending in France’s parliament, but if passed will carry a prison sentence of up to one year and a maximum fine of €45,000.

France’s parliament rejected a similar proposal earlier in the year but the global security legislation cleared the Assemblée Nationale’s lower chamber, where President Macron’s party has a majority, on 24 November. The global security bill is one of several legislative measures and amendments proposed by President Macron’s government in recent months to crack down on “crime and terrorism”. Article 24 is justified by the government as a measure to protect police officers from online calls for violence. It builds upon existing offences, as it is already illegal to threaten a police officer on social media. Gérald Darmanin, France’s hardline interior minister, boasted that the bill is “fulfilling a promise that photographs or videos of police officers would no longer be posted on social media.”

Why is it controversial?

The government argues that it will not hinder the work of journalists as any malign intent would have to be demonstrated in court. However, many journalists, NGOs and activists have criticised the amendment, saying that it will curtail press freedom and reduce police accountability. It poses a greater risk to journalists who cover protests and document police violence, which is essential to stopping future incidents of police brutality. If passed, it would lead to a situation where courts are left to decide whether images or videos shared online of the police were with the “intent to harm” or not.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ office states that the new article risks undermining fundamental rights.

France’s own human rights ombudsman echoed this. NGOs such as Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights League and Amnesty International France, as well as trade unions representing journalists, have also voiced objection to the law. Amnesty International France said that the proposed law would “prevent France from being in compliance with its international human rights commitments.” They added:

“It is all the more worrying that this bill provides for major obstacles to the possibility, essential in a rule of law, of filming and broadcasting images of the police, while in recent years many videos taken by journalists or ordinary citizens have made it possible to publicize cases of human rights violations.”

Citizens will no longer be able to use photos or videos as evidence of police violence, risking the “freedom to inform, an essential corollary of the right to freedom of expression”.

Article 24 is particularly controversial after a video emerged of four police officers attacking a Black man in his home on 21 November. Michel Zeclar, a 42-year old music producer, was kicked and punched for 15 minutes by three white police officers in his studio in Paris, before a fourth officer threw a tear gas canister into the building. The incident reportedly started over a dispute over whether Mr Zeclar was wearing a face mask, as required due to COVID-19. The incident was caught on CCTV and released by news website Loopsider, who tweeted the video and images of Zeclar’s bloodied face and injuries with the caption “15 minutes of racist beatings and insults.”

The video sparked national outcry, forcing the government to respond. President Macron released a statement saying that the footage is “unacceptable” and “shameful”, and that France should never “resign itself to violence” and “let hatred and racism prosper”. The officers identified in the video were suspended and placed under criminal investigation, charged with “intentional violence by a person holding authority.” Prosecutors argued that three of the policemen should remain in custody to stop any attempt at co-ordinating their stories, but the judge has only demanded that two remain in detention. According to prosecutors, the officers admitted their violence was unjustified, but that they “acted out of panic” after Mr Zeclar resisted them in the cramped studio entrance.

Police violence against minorities and migrant communities is particularly concerning in France. On 23 November, police were seen violently clearing out a make-shift refugee camp in Paris’ Place de la Republique and attacking protestors.

Photos and videos were posted online showing police hitting demonstrators and activists who came to help the refugees. Police, who say the camp was set up without official permission, were lifting up tents and shaking them until they collapsed, and using batons to beat people who resisted. Protestors and refugees were then chased onto the streets with tear gas. Many of the refugees were from Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea, with the make-shift camp set up after police dismantled a bigger migrant camp near a sports stadium in northern Paris. This comes after President Macron has adopted a harsher policy against migrants, and aid groups are now desperately trying to find shelter for hundreds of refugees.

Wider restrictions of human rights

After the video emerged of police beating Mr Zeclar, President Macron demanded government proposals on how to rebuild trust between the police and French citizens. Yet, the protests against Article 24 have led to further incidents of police violence and use of chemical tear-gas against protestors. Further to this, the global security bill brings more challenges to the right to protest and the right to privacy.

The bill extends the powers of police to film citizens by using more “pedestrian” (Article 21) or “airborne” (Article 22) cameras, or even drones. Police officers would therefore be able to film citizens possibly without their knowledge or consent, and access the recordings which were previously prohibited from them.

This adds to the erosion of police accountability and proper investigations into unlawful police conduct, if they are given the power to stop or start recordings, as well as access and possibly delete them.

As Article 22 also broadens the use of drones, it infringes the right to privacy. The risk of being filmed in any public space can deter people from participating in protests if they fear prosecution. There are no provisions in the bill that assure images or videos captured by the police will not be used or processed by facial recognition software. In fact, amendments have been tabled to introduce facial recognition to the measures, which Amnesty International France cautions against, saying it, “disproportionately undermines respect for the right to privacy.” They call for “a ban on the use of systems that allow indiscriminate, even mass surveillance, by both state agencies and private sector actors.”

The legislation shows another rightward shift of President Macron’s party with 17 months to go until the next presidential election. His actions are seen by some as appeasing rightwing voters, especially with the rise in hostility towards migrants and refugees, as well as pleasing the police who have long asked for anonymity. President Macron’s government should listen to the concerns of activists and human rights organisations, as maintaining police accountability is vital to effective public services, and the rights to free press and expression should be protected.

As of 1 December 2020, French politicians have agreed to “totally rewrite” Article 24 of the controversial security bill amid national outrage and widespread protests. 

Christophe Castaner, the head of President Emmanuel Macron’s group of centrist MPs in parliament, said Article 24 “will be completely rewritten and a new version will be submitted”, going on to state that:

“while we can never tolerate any reduction of press freedom or images Article 24 would not have affected in any way the spread of those images we’ve seen in recent days”

However, rights advocates have stated that the move to rewrite this section of the bill is inadequate – with many calling for the French government to abandon the bill in its entirety. The maintenance of the other 31 Articles, which include the expansion of camera surveillance/facial recognition (articles 20-21) and permitting police to carry loaded weapons at all times (article 25), has also been extremely contentious.

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