Protesters take to streets across France over controversial National Security law
Thousands of critics of a proposed security law that would restrict sharing images of police officers in France gathered across the country in protest Saturday, with the country shaken by footage showing officers beating and racially abusing a Black man.
In Paris, several thousand people packed the Place de la République and surrounding streets carrying red union flags, the national tricolour flags and homemade signs denouncing police violence, demanding media freedom or calling for Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin’s resignation.
Police fired tear gas in the French capital after protesters launched fireworks at them, put up barricades and threw stones.
The crowd included journalists, journalism students, left-wing activists, migrants rights groups and citizens of varied political stripes expressing anger over what they perceive as a hardening police tactics in recent years, especially since France’s Yellow Vest protests against economic hardship in 2018.
“There were all those protests in the summer against police violence, and this law shows the government didn’t hear us… It’s the impunity. That’s what makes us so angry,” protest participant Kenza Berkane, 26, told AP.
French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday said images of police beating a Black music producer in Paris put “shame” on the country, with top politicians and sportsmen expressing outrage over the incident.
The case, coming on the heels of a violent evacuation of migrants in central Paris, has shocked the nation and galvanised opponents of the government’s controversial new security law.
One of the most disputed elements of the proposed law is Article 24, which would criminalise the publication of images of on-duty police officers with the intent of harming their “physical or psychological integrity”.
It was passed by the National Assembly last week – although it is awaiting Senate approval – provoking protests and drawing condemnation from media organisations across France.
“The bill will not jeopardise in any way the rights of journalists or ordinary citizens to inform the public,” Alice Thourot, an MP for Macron’s La République En Marche (LREM) party and the co-author of the clause, told French daily Le Figaro last week. Article 24 would “outlaw any calls for violence or reprisals against police officers on social media – and that only”, Thourot said.
However, NGOs and journalists’ groups are calling for the article to be withdrawn, claiming that it contradicts “the fundamental public freedoms of our Republic”.
“This bill aims to undermine the freedom of the press, the freedom to inform and be informed, the freedom of expression,” one of Saturday’s protest organisers said.
Article 24 should be removed
The only way to protect freedom of the press would be to get rid of the article altogether. If this is really about protecting police officers, it is unnecessary anyway. It is already illegal to threaten and insult police officers, even on social media. Article 24 does not add anything in this regard.
Moreover, it is worded so vaguely that it opens the floodgates to abuse. Who will judge whether a police officer’s “physical or mental integrity” has been harmed? The person concerned by the offense and making an arrest, i.e. the police officer. It is enough for a police officer to feel threatened.
This law will allow the police to take action against journalists and others filming demonstrations and broadcasting on social network platforms. Even if in the end they are not charged, they will have been forced to interrupt their work. Yet, such footage is an important means of documenting police violence.
A dangerous law
This is a dangerous law. France is a free and democratic state and should remain so. There are reactionary forces in the country who would like to come to power. Every law that restricts basic rights today offers future governments the possibility to clamp down even further.
Journalists in France — or anywhere else in Europe — should not have to fear being arrested by the police at will.
It’s an irony that the French president who just weeks ago was presenting himself to the world as the defender of freedom of speech now presents this article.
Looks like a huge turnout in the capital. More gatherings in other major cities across France today.— Yena Lee (@yenatweet) November 28, 2020
But will it be enough to make Macron's party backtrack re: the controversial #LoiSecuriteGlobale bill?#MarcheDesLibertes https://t.co/iSuDl5kCkW
In Paris, government officials had ordered that organisers limit the rally to a single location, but the order was quashed by judges who authorised a march.
And in a sign that the government could be preparing to backtrack, Prime Minister Jean Castex announced Friday that he would appoint a commission to redraft Article 24.
Under the article, offenders could be sentenced to up to a year in jail, and fined 45,000 euros ($53,000) for sharing images of police officers.
Media unions say it could give police a green light to prevent journalists – and social media users – from documenting abuses.
They point to the case of music producer Michel Zecler, whose racial abuse and beating at the hands of police was recorded by CCTV and later published online, provoking widespread criticism of the officers’ actions.
In another instance, journalists on the ground at a French migrant camp witnessed and recorded police brutality on Monday as the Paris area was cleared.
‘Soiled the uniform of the Republic’
The incidents have increased pressure on Darmanin and raised questions over the future of Paris police chief Didier Lallement.
In an interview with France 2 television on Thursday, Darmanin said the officers involved in Zecler’s beating “had soiled the uniform of the Republic”.
Macron has held talks with Darmanin to call for tough punishments for those involved in the beating, a government source said.
Protests over police brutality have already taken place elsewhere in the country ahead of Saturday.
Demonstrators took to the streets of Toulouse on Friday evening brandishing placards with slogans like “police everywhere, justice nowhere”. In Nantes, police said around 3,500 rallied, while organisers put the crowd at 6,000-7,000.
The condemnation has spread on social media sites following Zecler’s beating, with top footballers such as Kylian Mbappé joining his French national teammates and other athletes in calling for an end to racism.
“Unbearable video, unacceptable violence,” Mbappé wrote on Twitter next to a picture of the injured producer, “Say no to racism.”