Civil society push back against Separatism law, pension reforms & surveillance
The end of 2022 in France was marked by women’s rights protests to end gender-based violence and police clashes following the attacks on the members of the Kurdish community in Paris.
The start of 2023 has been turbulent for France’s political and civil landscape. Civil society, activists and trade unions have been demonstrating against the French President’s new pension reforms, in addition to opposing proposed bills on migration laws and AI surveillance methods.
France continues to see restrictions on civic space in 2023 with civil associations continuing to face financial or administrative obstacles as a result of the ‘loi Séparatisme’, known as the Separatism law.
Separatism law marks one year amid declining civic space
It’s been a year since France’s controversial “loi Separatisme” also known as the “Contrat d’Engagement Republicain (CER)” came into effect in January 2022. This legislation was adopted despite serious concerns raised from CSOs, grassroot movements and media outlets on the potential of the bill to limit the rights to association and religious freedom of the Muslim community in France.
This bill has been mainly utilised to limit the freedom of expression and to cast a negative presumption on associations. Moreover, it has increased the sanctioning powers given to administrative authorities in policing the activity of associations and to dissolve an association which acts contrary to the principles of the Republic. While some warnings against organisations by the authorities have not led to suspension of funding or their dissolution (see previous update), they have serious material and symbolic costs such as reputational damage and intimidation. They also divert capacities and resources away from the mission of the organisation to defend itself in court and in the public domain. These indictments may also deter other associations and activists from pursuing their normal activities for fear of repression.
One year later, CSOs are demanding that the law be repealed.
📣💥📰 Jeudi 26 janvier, au #pointpresseCER, dans une salle pleine et avec plusieurs médias présents, les #associations et leurs partenaires ont demandé au @gouvernementFR l'abrogation du #CER #contratengagementrépublicain ⤵️— Le Mouvement associatif (@lemouvementasso) February 1, 2023
As explained by Le Mouvement Associatif, France’s biggest civil society organisation, civil organisations and associations must abide by and respect the rules of the Republican contract by respecting the Republican principles of equality, liberty, laicity, and refraining from ”any action undermining public order.” Particularly, it was observed that this law has had a greater impact on the functioning and movement of environmental and feminist associations. This was famously recorded in Poitiers in 2022 where grassroots movement Alternatiba was accused of breaching the Republican contract after organising civil disobedience workshops (see latest update). More recently, this has affected CSOs in Lille and Creil.
In October 2022, the Regional House of Environment and Solidarity (MRES), rented a room to the organisation NADA - Non à l'agrandissement de l'aéroport de Lille Lesquin (No to the expansion of the Lille-Lesquin airport), and was accused of hosting an organisation with a history of civil disobedience and advocating for disruptive protest methods. In December 2022, MRES was questioned by the Préfecture du Nord as the act of civil disobedience was considered a breach of the Republican Engagement Contract (CER).
Xavier Galand, director of MRES, has expressed his concerns about the CER being used as a tool to control CSOs and believes it will impact the future of his organisation:
75% of our budget comes from public funding. So many resources could be called into question if the administration considers that the association does not respect the "republican commitment contract. We are in the process of submitting funding files for 2023, we will see how they will be investigated. This encourages a form of self-censorship, we ask ourselves "Can we do this, or that?" The repressive function of the republican contract of engagement appears in broad daylight. (Translated from French) - Xavier Galand, director of MRES.
The number of directly repressive cases is not extremely numerous. However, these cases have stirred up the associative world. Alternatiba and MRES are far from being the most radical environmental associations. They do not advocate sabotage or violent actions. By choosing to tackle mainstream players, the authorities are sending an extremely powerful message to the entire green sector. (translated from French). - Julien Talpin, leader of the Observatoire Des Libertés Associatives (Observatory of Associative Freedoms).
There have also been reports of feminist associations being accused of not respecting Republican principles or the CER due to representative members wearing religious clothing.
Republican values & religious freedom
The association Femmes sans Frontières, based in Creil in the Oise department, has helped women who were victims of domestic violence and migrants seeking social, linguistic and administrative help for many years. However, in recent years, the association has faced significant difficulties which have heavily impacted its functioning and longevity.
The association has been accused of “not respecting Republican values” as its director, Faïza Boudchar, wears a veil. Since 2021, the Oise prefecture has shared its doubt about the Republican values of Femmes sans Frontières and has since retracted its funding. More specifically, subsidies granted by the State, the region and the department for various projects have all stopped. The Creil town hall is currently the only party which has maintained financial support for the organisation.
In 2023, the organisation was meant to celebrate its 39th anniversary. Instead, it fears having to close due to the strict nature of the Separatism law which disproportionately targets CSOs with representative members who show their religious affiliations. This case is not isolated.
Earlier in February 2022, the Planning Familial 71 organisation organised a peaceful women’s rights rally in Châlons-sur-Saône, which was promoted through a communications campaign that featured a woman wearing a veil. The mayor of Châlons-sur-Saône declared this as contrary to the CER and withdrew its subsidies to the organisation.
Despite this, the organisation, which appealed this decision to the Dijon administrative court and the French Conseil d’État (Council of state), won the case as the Conseil d’État denied the breach of the CER and the subsidy withdrawals were cancelled.
Whilst the Planning Familial story has a positive ending, many other feminist and environmental associations face challenges with the CER.
Article 1 of the Separatism law upholds a strict principle of secularism, which declares that any organisation providing public services by law or regulation must ensure that its employees, “when participating in the performance of the public service, refrain from expressing their opinions, especially religious ones”, a principle which endangers the expression of religious freedom and identity. However, the laicity rule has been discerned as being used to mainly hinder Islamic beliefs and representation, showing that the CER represents a threat to CSOs and to “essential components of civic space such as freedom of thought, religion, association and right to non-discrimination”.
Civil society and trade unions protest against pension reforms
In January 2023, Élisabeth Borne, the French Prime Minister, revealed a new pension and retirement scheme, a plan which was promised during Emmanuel Macron’s 2022 presidential electoral campaign.
The reform proposes:
- To increase the retirement age from 62 to 64. The change will be gradual, increasing by three months per year from September until 2030.
- From 2027 on, workers will need to work for 43 years, instead of the current 42, to draw a full pension.
- Guarantee a minimum pension income of not less than 85 per cent of the net minimum wage, or roughly 1,200 euros per month at current levels, for new retirees.
- After year one of retirement, the pensions of those receiving a minimum income will be indexed to inflation.
With this plan, the French government aimed to:
- Boost the employment rate among 60 to 64 year-olds.
- By 2030, increase annual pension contributions to 17.7 billion euros per year.
- Increase the pensions of the poorest 30 per cent of population from 2.5 per cent to 5 per cent.
In response, nationwide strikes were organised by leading trade unions and CSOs as the public argue that this reform will perpetuate increased social injustices and inequalities as it will disproportionately impact the working class, women, and workers with health conditions. More specifically, it will penalise the working class who do physically demanding jobs as they will find it harder to work for longer, as well as women who have had career breaks or occupy part-time jobs because of child care.
Under the current rules, French women's pensions are lower than men by 40 per cent. Women protesting against the pension reforms are also demanding fair and equal pensions.
On 19th January 2023, the first nationwide protests took place with 1,12 million protestors across France. Schools, public transport, and air services were also disrupted as workers joined the strike, resulting in local and regional travel cancellations. While the protests were mostly peaceful, according to Le Monde radical demonstrators threw bottles and smoke grenades at police forces, who responded with tear gas. Around 30 people were arrested that day.
On 31st January 2023, a second wave of protests swept across France. Protesters clashed with police forces once again which led to the use of tear gas to disperse crowds and the arrest of 30 more protesters.
More protests took place after the controversial pension reform was adopted by the government on 20th March 2023. PM Élisabeth Borne invoked Article 49.3, a constitutional clause which “grants the government executive privilege to pass a bill without a parliamentary vote but allows the opposition the opportunity to respond with a no-confidence vote.”
Following this, President Macron survived a no-confidence vote, with 278 MPs voting in favour, narrowly escaping the 287 votes needed. However, civic actors, demonstrators and trade unions expressed outrage at the government’s decision to push through this law. This prompted new anti-government protests across France, with 101 people arrested after stand-offs with the police.
Ligue des Droits de L’ Homme raised concerns over the “disproportionate and dangerous use of public force” in response to protests. Similarly, Amnesty France highlighted several incidents of excessive force, including the use of batons to inflict physical harm on protesters. Human Rights Watch called for investigations into police abuse.
Depuis janvier 2023, des manifestations ont lieu partout en France dans le cadre du mouvement social d’opposition au projet de réforme des retraites du gouvernement.— Amnesty International France (@amnestyfrance) March 21, 2023
Nous alertons sur le recours excessif à la force et aux arrestations abusives, signalé dans plusieurs médias.👇
In a tweet, Clement Voulé, Special rapporteur for freedom of peaceful assembly and association, called on police to facilitate peaceful protests and avoid excessive use of force and called on “authorities to open negotiations with the demonstrators to avoid any deterioration.”
J’appelle les autorités à ouvrir des négociations avec les manifestants pour éviter toute détérioration. @EmmanuelMacron— UN Special Rapporteur Freedom of Association (@cvoule) March 20, 2023
Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, called for the respect of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
It is the responsibility of the authorities to allow the full enjoyment of these freedoms, by protecting peaceful demonstrators and journalists covering these demonstrations from police violence and from violent individuals operating within the demonstrations or in their margins.
Violent incidents have taken place, some of which have targeted law enforcement officers. But sporadic violence from certain protesters and other punishable acts committed by others in the course of a demonstration cannot justify the excessive use of force by state agents. Such acts are not sufficient to deprive peaceful demonstrators of the enjoyment of the right to freedom of assembly either. - Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović.
Clashes during protests in support of the Kurdish Community
On 23rd December 2022, an armed attack on the Ahmet Kaya Cultural Centre in Paris led to the deaths of three people from the Kurdish community.
In response to these incidents, civil society groups and protestors mobilised to show their support for the victims of the Kurdish community and against attacks on minority groups in France. That evening, hundreds had peacefully gathered at the Place de la République in a spontaneous gathering to pay tribute to the victims, an event which was rapidly monitored by police forces for security purposes . However, clashes between protestors and police forces broke out as the police used tear gas against protesters who attempted to break through a security cordon. It is unclear what sparked the clashes.
Renewed violence between protesters and police forces continued the following day. Cars were overturned and burned, shop windows were damaged and police continued using tear gas which resulted in many injuries and 11 protesters were arrested.
The suspect in the violence was detained and arrested by the police, charged for acting with a racist motive, and was found to have a history of attacks against Muslim and migrant populations in France. The Ligue des Droits de l’Homme (League of Human Rights - LDH) denounced the incident and highlighted that extremist discourse and ideologies used by the far-right impact on the fundamental rights of minority communities in France and are a danger to the values of the French Republic, the rule of law and its democracy.
Since these incidents, peaceful protests were organised on 7th January 2023 in Paris. Thousands of Kurds, civil society actors and human rights activists rallied in support of the Kurdish community and to mark the 10th anniversary of the killing of three Kurdish women in Paris in 2013.
Protests for gender equality
On 19th November 2022, CSOs, human rights defenders and activists demonstrated against the rising cases of femicide in France, with approximately 100 women victims in 2022.
A report by Le Haut Conseil à l’Égalité (the High Council for Equality) raised severe concerns about the increasing frequency of gender-based violence and femicide in France. In its 2023 report, the High Council claimed that one in five women, aged 18 to 24, has been a victim of rape or sexual assault. The High Council, in addition to feminist associations including SOS Homophobie (SOS Homophobia), are important actors in leading public debates and ensuring consultation with civil society on the subject of women’s rights, equality, sexism and homophobia.
The demonstration aimed to raise awareness of the violence that women face in public spaces and from their partners, and to demand €2 billion per year from the government to improve platforms and systems to encourage survivors to speak out, and to create specialised police units and courts.
Concerns over New Asylum and Migration Plan
On 1st February 2023, the French government presented a new Asylum and Migration Bill to the Council of Ministers.
This bill, introduced by Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin and Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt, aims to facilitate “the regularisation process for undocumented workers while providing greater scope for deportation, especially for foreigners who commit crimes” and providing residence permits to undocumented migrants working in sectors where there are labour shortages.
The LDH opposed the new asylum and immigration law, stating that its actual objective is to employ repressive practices, including the systematisation of obligations to leave French territory and forbid a return.
The LDH raised concerns about the rights of migrants if this bill, also informally called the ‘Darmanin law’, were to be passed, as it would lead to the dehumanisation and “radical denial of the fundamental rights of migrants”. If it is implemented, it is set to become the most restrictive migration law passed in France.
The full extent of the bill was leaked to the press, and revealed plans to “increase deportations with stronger repression at the borders and tougher access to residence permits”.
La #LDH appelle à se mobiliser contre l'immigration jetable & pour une politique migratoire d'accueil. Alors que les droits des personnes étrangères sont de plus en plus bafoués, y compris ceux des enfants, il est de notre responsabilité de réagir !https://t.co/b1GjcKYaql pic.twitter.com/GxI810Uhvu— LDH France (@LDH_Fr) February 19, 2023
CSOs, work unions and migrant associations have responded to this bill by organising rallies to protest against this law across several cities in France.
Intimidation and detentions: tough situation for journalists
A report by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) stated that there are legislative and regulatory frameworks in France that allow freedom of the press and independence. However, there have been numerous cases of journalists experiencing intimidation, harassment, physical assault, and detention by the police, international companies, or the public.
The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) platform Mapping Media Freedom recorded a number of these cases:
- On 17th November 2022, a journalist working for La Montagne experienced racist and discriminatory remarks by a local politician in Puy-du-Dôme, who questioned his identity and asked him for his identity papers.
- On 8th January 2023, a woman journalist working on an article covering the Western Commune of Cholet for the newspaper Ouest-France was subject to inappropriate and sexist remarks by members of the town’s associations. These comments included "don't forget to lock the office so that she doesn't escape" and “It is nice to do that [the interview] with a pretty girl”.
- On19th January 2023 during a pension reform protest in Paris, a photojournalist was physically assaulted by a policeman. According to sources, the photojournalist was “holding his camera when the policeman ran to him, hit him in the lower stomach and ran back to the protective barrier himself”.
- On 25th January 2023, Energy company Total Energies warned Mediapart of potential legal actions and consequences if the journal made defamatory accusations against it during a future event organised to discuss Total Energies and the company's actions.
- On 31st January 2023, the editor-in-chief of Le Poher journal, Erwan Chartier, received an anonymous death threat via email, following an article they published on the Horizon project which aims to welcome migrants in the Commune of Callac. Two weeks later, a journalist working for France 3 Bretagne received online threats and harassment. The journalist, who was also working on media coverage of the Horizon project, had reported on the death threats sent to Erwan Chartier from Le Poher.
- In February 2023, three journalists faced intimidation and were detained by the police during a student protest in Paris. The journalists were placed facing the wall with their hands behind their backs before being taken away in police vans, despite providing evidence of their journalist statuses. The journalists were released after one hour.
The 2024 Olympics: Mass Support and Mass Surveillance
As France is preparing to host the 2024 Olympics, CSOs have expressed serious concerns on Article 7 of the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games Bill, which proposes security measures by employing various tools of intrusive algorithmic surveillance in public spaces. More specifically, AI would be used to detect suspicious crowd movements, body language or clothing through CCTV cameras and drones, to find “in real-time, risks of acts of terrorism or serious attacks on the security of persons.”
Other controversial and highly intrusive technology will include body scanners to “facilitate” the access to sporting events with more than 300 spectators, in addition to DNA tests being carried out on sportsmen and sportswomen for anti-doping controls.
This proposal has sparked controversy as CSOs and civic space actors fear it will threaten civil liberties and privacy rights.
The use of drones as a surveillance method was reintroduced in the 2021 Loi sur la Responsabilité Pénale et la Sécurité Intérieure (law for criminal responsibility and internal security), to “redefine the criteria of the responsibility of litigants and to regulate the use of drones by the police”. Since then, national police and the gendarmerie have been authorised to use drones in public spaces for border surveillance and to prevent attacks on people and acts of terrorism, which had already caused a lot of controversy amongst the public.
If adopted, France would be the first EU country to legalise using algorithmic video surveillance for large-scale events. Additionally, it could set a worrying precedent for intrusive surveillance methods across other EU countries which would harm international and EU laws on privacy and data protection. Moreover, civil society organisations state that it could infringe on civil liberties and protest rights as mass surveillance harms individuals’ “willingness and ability to exercise their civil liberties, as they fear being identified, spotted or even wrongly prosecuted”.
These experimental surveillance methods are meant to last till June 2025. However, the LDH has raised concerns that it could be used to control festivals, cultural events and protests, and could even become permanent.
Noémie Levain, a lawyer from La Quadrature du Net, an advocacy group defending civil liberties in a digital age, told Euronews:
The Olympics are a pretext. We know that it won't stop in 2025. As soon as there is an experiment, it is perpetuated. It's important to see the movement that France is taking with this law, to want to give more importance to the development of the video surveillance market than to public liberties. - Noémie Levain, a lawyer from La Quadrature du Net.
The European Center for Not-For-Profit Law (ECNL), with the support of 38 CSOs, including the European Civic Forum, sent a letter to the National Assembly to highlight the risks the proposed bill can have on civic freedoms, international human rights law and the future EU AI Act.
We join @enablingNGOlaw @laquadrature @amnestyfrance & 30+ other orgs to call out the use of intrusive algorithm-driven video surveillance at the Paris Olympics 2024.— Fair Trials (@fairtrials) March 6, 2023
This use threatens fundamental rights & is contrary to international law ⬇️ @lemondefr https://t.co/nWYU37qlZM
Before being implemented, the bill will be examined by the National Assembly and the Commission Nationale de l'Informatique et des Libertés (National Commission on Informatics and Liberty).