Concerns about rule of law in France as protests met with brutality
Freedom of association
Court overturns dissolution of environmental group
On 21st June, the French Council of Ministers issued a decree dissolving the environmental movement Soulèvements de la Terre after Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin accused the group of being responsible for violent actions. Members of the movement were taken into police custody by anti-terrorist agents the day before this decision was announced.
The government initiated the dissolution process on 28th March after the group took part in a large demonstration in Sainte-Soline against the construction of “megabassines” (huge water reservoirs). As many media and observers reported, the demonstration involved massive police violence. The human rights organisation Ligue des droits de l’Homme reported that the police used “disproportionate” and “indiscriminate” force against all those present at the protest. The move to shutter the group raised serious concerns among international institutions and French civil society actors about the right to protest and freedom of expression, as well as about the shrinking civil society space and the regression of the rule of law in France.
This decree was challenged by the environmental group itself, as well as by several CSOs, political parties and individuals, who appealed to the Council of State, France’s highest court for public administration, to suspend the dissolution in summary proceedings. The hearing took place on 8 August. On 11 August, the Council of State suspended the decree of the Council of Ministers because the judges had “serious doubt” as to what qualified as “incitement to acts of violence against people and property,” in the context of the dissolution decree.
In another document, the judges declared the decree “neither appropriate, nor necessary, nor proportionate to protect public order,” further adding that it “constitutes an unjustified and disproportionate attack on freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of association, which are protected by the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms”.
The Soulèvements de la Terre have called this a “first victory”, but consider that it is “the first round in a very long legal battle”.
Freedom of peaceful assembly
Pension reform protests
As previously reported by the CIVICUS Monitor, mass protests against pension reform broke out in January 2023 and continued through the first half of the year. Millions of workers took to the streets after the government unveiled its plans to raise the retirement age, while police then arrested hundreds of people, employing excessive and brutal force. The protests gradually subsided after President Emmanuel Macron signed the changes into law in April.
The last protest took place on 6th June, when protesters and trade unionists stormed and briefly occupied the Paris 2024 Olympic headquarters. There was no violence or damage and the turnout at the protests was significantly lower than previous ones – the French government said a total of 281,000 people took part, compared to 782,000 who had taken to the streets across France in previous protests on 1st May. The fiercely contested changes to the pension system came into force on 1st September, with the statutory retirement age to be raised to 64 by 2030.
Riots follow police shooting of unarmed teenager
On 27th June, 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk, who is of North African origin, was shot dead by a police officer in his car after being stopped by two officers. Previously in 2022, there were 13 deaths following police stops, all victims of African and Arab origin.
After the tragic event, there were calls for peaceful funeral marches for Nahel. However, the protests soon turned violent, with many of the perpetrators being youths, and the riots soon spread to all major French cities. The police intervened indiscriminately and in many cases used excessive force. The anger expressed by the youth sparked several important debates about the treatment of minorities in marginalised communities by the police, and more generally about the social inequalities that plague the country.
The excessive and untargeted use of force by the police has contributed to a deepening division in society. A statement by two leading police unions claiming to be “at war” with the youth and the lack of a government response to such claims are more than worrying and show a weakening of the democratic functioning of institutions in France.
Here is a timeline of events:
- Four nights of massive street violence occurred in many large and medium-sized cities, with town halls, schools, police stations, public transport, libraries and cars set on fire.
- From the second night, the Minister of the Interior mobilised 45,000 police officers nationwide. Between 27th June and 4th July, more than 3,000 people were arrested, with the average age of those arrested being 17. In addition, children as young as twelve were arrested by the police. Prison sentences were imposed on about 1,000 people.
- The protests began in Nanterre but soon spread to larger cities in France such as Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, Marseille and Lille, and even spread to some cities in Switzerland and Belgium as the unrest was fuelled on social media.
According to media reports, the unrest calmed down considerably on 2nd July.
Concerns about escalating police violence
Due to the shooting and its aftermath, many international actors and civil society organisations expressed alarm about police violence in France. EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders expressed concern about the “very high level of violence” in France and called for “reflection” on the organisation of policing. The disproportionate level of police violence in France has already been the subject of concern by UN experts at meetings earlier in 2023 due to the “excessive use of force during protests in France earlier this year related to pension reform and mega-basin projects”. Volker Türk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said France must “seriously address the deep-seated problems of racism and racial discrimination among law enforcement officers”. The European Network Against Racism (ENAR) has called on the French government to “take immediate action to address concerns raised by civil society organisations and human rights groups about impunity and racialised policing in France.”
The Ligue des Droits de l’Homme (LDH) has issued a statement denouncing the use of weapons by the police and calling for the repeal of an article added to the Internal Security Code in 2017, which “facilitates the use of weapons, in particular in the event of refusal to comply”. More than 120 civil society organisations, trade unions, collectives and activists have called for a march in France and its overseas territories to demand the repeal of the 2017 law. Although marches were announced in July, several were banned by local representatives of the Minister of the Interior. Those that took place nevertheless had a smaller turnout due to the bans and the chilling effect of previous brutality.
On the night of 1st to 2nd July, as the riots unfolded in Marseille, 27-year-old Mohammed was killed by a riot police flash-ball. On 4 July, the Marseille prosecutor’s office opened an investigation for “fatal blows with use or threat of a weapon” in the case. On 10th August, three police officers were charged in the death of Mohammed.
Another disturbing case of police violence occurred in Marseille during the riots. On the same night that Mohammad was killed, a 21-year-old man, identified only as Hedi, was seriously injured after being beaten with batons and hit at close range with flash-ball shots to the head. Investigations into the case were launched on 5th July and eight police officers were arrested on 18th July on suspicion of “intentional use of force resulting in an incapacity to work of more than eight days” against the man. According to the Marseille prosecutor’s office, there are three aggravating circumstances related to the commission of this crime. The offence was committed in a group, with the use or threat of a weapon and by a public official in the exercise of his duties. On 20th July, charges were filed against four officers identified as members of the BAC (Anti-Crime Brigade) in Hedi’s case. Since then, three of them have been released under judicial supervision, while the fourth has remained in custody, causing controversy within the French police force, with a large number of officers taking sick leave or performing minimal work as a form of protest against their colleague’s detention.
In a speech on 28th July, Interior Minister Darmanin spoke out in support of the police, saying that “police officers cannot be the only ones to whom the presumption of innocence does not apply” and assuring them of understanding for the “emotions and anger” of police officers who support detained officers.
In a press release, the National Conference of First Presidents of Courts of Appeal (CNPP) and the National Conference of Prosecutors General (CNPG) expressed their concern about the “degradation of the rule of law” in France following Darmanin’s comments. They stated that “the Interior Minister’s questioning of the application of criminal law by judges is once again a direct criticism of judicial decisions and the professional ethics of judges”. Furthermore, they fear ”that "a form of radicalisation is taking hold among police officers, encouraged by the public attacks by their highest authorities on the principles of separation of powers and judicial independence”.
Interior Ministry moves to “systematically” evict rioters from their homes
On 31st August, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin announced that he would ask prefects for “systematic firmness” to evict “criminals who have committed acts of urban violence” from social housing. In the week prior to the announcement, one convicted rioter and his relatives were already evicted by the prefect of Val-d'Oise. The CSO Right to Housing (Droit au logement) condemned the eviction, calling it “illegal” and “morally scandalous”.
In a statement to TF1, Darmanin explained this policy: “The President of the Republic has asked us to be firm in pursuing those responsible for the unacceptable and very violent riots experienced by the French in July. [...] this systematic expulsion, which will of course be judicially decided, will now be made everywhere on the national territory once we have identified the people who have committed crimes.”
Use of AI surveillance raises concerns
There are still growing concerns about the impact of the AI surveillance law passed in March this year ahead of the 2024 Olympics in Paris, which will deploy various algorithmic AI surveillance tools in public spaces. A version of the new AI security system is already in use in some police stations in France. Massy, a Paris suburb, is considered a “pioneer” for this technology. Another cause for concern is the justice reform law passed in France on 5th July, which gives law enforcement authorities the power to “monitor cameras, microphones and geolocation on personal phones and other devices in the possession of citizens”.
Civil society organisations and digital rights groups have reacted to this bill as they have significant concerns about privacy, civil liberties and the potential for increased repression of marginalised groups under the pretext of national security. The European Network Against Racism (ENAR) has expressed concern that the expansion of surveillance "will “only reinforce the vicious, self-perpetuating cycle of police brutality and profiling that targets racialised communities and has tragic consequences",” citing in particular the tragic case of Nahel M.
Repressions on pro-Palestinian protests
The ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza, triggered by Israel’s continued bombardment of the occupied territory following the extremist Hamas attack on the country on 7th October, has led to massive solidarity rallies around the world by those who want to show their support for the Palestinian people. As in other European countries, these protests have been met with significant restrictions in France.
On 12th October, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin ordered a ban on pro-Palestinian protests in France on the grounds they could lead to “public disorder”. Meanwhile, rallies in support of Israel were authorised, including a large march organised by the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF) in Paris, attended by some 20,000 people. The Council of State rejected Darmanin's order on 18th October. In its decision, the Council of State said that the decision to ban protests should rest exclusively with prefects.
Despite the ban, protests supporting Palestine took place in multiple cities across France, including Paris, Grenoble, Strasbourg, Marseille, Lyon, and Lille. However, they have been met with police violence, including water cannons and tear gas, and numerous protesters have been arrested.
At one rally on 14th October, journalist Taha Bouhafs was arrested while covering a protest in Paris. In an interview for +972 Magazine, he said: “There were very violent arrests, people were getting strangled by the police,” adding that he was fined by police for his participation in the protest, despite showing them his press card. According to Bouhafs, police went on to threaten him, telling him: “If we see you again at a protest, we will break your legs.”
Protesters have also been fined for attending pro-Palestinian gatherings. According to media reports, at a protest in Paris on 28th October, out of 3,000–4,000 who took part in the demonstration, 1,359 people were required to pay a EUR 135 fine for participating in “unsanctioned demonstrations.”
Freedom of expression
France insists on national security exceptions to the EU Media Freedom Act provisions protecting journalists
During an EU Council meeting on 21st June, the EU's deputy permanent representatives gave final approval to amendments to the European Media Freedom Act, proposed by the Commission in September 2022, which aims to protect the pluralism and independence of the media in the EU. Among other provisions, the Act states that authorities may not “detain, sanction, intercept, subject to surveillance or search and seizure” journalists in order to uncover their sources, unless “justified by an overriding requirement in the public interest. The Act also prohibits the use of spyware against journalists, except when necessary to safeguard national security “on a case-by-case basis”, or when such action is necessary in order to investigate certain serious crimes listed by the Commission.
However, it has been reported that France, along with other EU member states, including the Netherlands, has called for the inclusion of an “explicit and unconditional clause” allowing exceptions to journalists’ right to preserve the identity of their sources when deemed necessary to protect a country’s national security interests. France is also pushing for an extension of the exceptions allowing the use of “intrusive surveillance software” in the interest of national security, such as the installation of spyware on journalists’ phones.
Outrage from media associations as investigative journalist arrested
In November 2021, the investigative website Disclose published articles revealing how information from a French counterintelligence operation in Egypt was used by the Egyptian state to carry out arbitrary killings of smugglers on the Libyan border. The article, based on hundreds of classified documents, alleged that French forces were complicit in at least 19 bombings of smugglers between 2016 and 2018, resulting in the extrajudicial killing of hundreds of people.
On 19th September 2023, Disclose journalist Yvonne Lavrilleux was detained for questioning by the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Intérieure (DGSI), France’s special intelligence service. Disclose denounced the arrest as an attack on source confidentiality, a view supported by the Society of Journalists and Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Amnesty International Secretary General Agnes Callamard expressed concern that it was not those responsible but the journalists who exposed these atrocities who were being targeted. Lavrilleux was released without charge after two days in detention, and a former military member arrested the same day as the journalist will be brought before a judge to face further charges.
Minister threatens deportation for those who commit antisemitic acts
On 11th October, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin announced that he has ordered the deportation of any non-French national found to commit antisemitic acts. At the same time, he said “at least two people” were in the process of being deported already.
On 16th October, Mariam Abudaqa, a women's rights activist in Gaza and a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), received an “absolute emergency” deportation order from the French Interior Ministry. Abudaqa had come to France to attend a series of conferences and had spoken in several cities where pro-Palestinian protests had been banned by local authorities. She was placed under house arrest in a hotel in Marseille until her deportation. The Interior Ministry justified the decision to expel Abudaqa on the grounds of her membership in the PFLP, which has been sanctioned by the EU. The authorities also pointed out that her “widely known participation” in events and demonstrations “could fuel tensions, hatred and violence” in the current situation.