Civic space under pressure in France - a roundup of the latest developments

Association

While most civil society organisations in France are free to operate as they wish, some organisations are being impacted by tougher rules on migration, coupled with stricter procedures on lobbying and advocacy activities, as detailed below. 

Tougher conditions for those working with migrants and refugees

Amnesty activist Martine Landry is due to face trial in Nice on 14th February 2018 for helping two irregular migrants from Italy. The two migrants are minors, and were found by Martine at the border, then escorted to the Border Police (PAF) with documents attesting their request for support by the Children's Social Assistance. In regards to the Landry's trial, Amnesty International wrote: 

“These people who help refugees are worried, intimidated, pursued while defending human rights first and foremost. They act to protect the rights of migrant and refugee persons who are attacked by the French authorities. These people are human rights defenders, and the state must protect them. While, for more than two years, our organisations denounce violations of international European or French law, at the Franco-Italian border by the French authorities, the latter intimidate and pursue those who try to protect the human rights of people as vulnerable as isolated minors”.

For more than a year, the Front National mayor of the northern city of Hayange has attempted to obstruct the work of the local organisation Secours Populaire, which he accuses of being politicised due to its "pro-migrant propaganda". Secours Populaire is one of France's longstanding nongovernmental and nonprofit organisations dedicated to fighting poverty and discrimination. In an attempt to put a halt to the organisation's activities, Hayange Mayor Fabien Engelmann deprived it of access to gas and electricity. Secours Populaire, however, remained undeterred and later wrote to the mayor, warning him of legal action should their gas and electricity connections not be restored. In response, the mayor filed an eviction procedure against the organisation for alleged insurance issues. Despite these difficulties, the local head of Secours Populaire, Anne Duflot-Allievi, responded that:

"We have been in Hayange since 1978 and in these premises since 2005. As for the [claim about our] insurance, it is false, and the mayor knows it well: he had made the same blow a year ago, and we had provided all the certificates. So I'm not worried, our case is right, and I do not think we have anything to [be blamed for]".

Secours Populaire scored an important victory on 19th December 2017 when a court ruled against the mayor's decision and ordered the city to restore the gas and electricity connections.

On 8th December 2017, Minister of the Interior Gérard Collomb presented civil society with his policy proposals to address the housing emergency. The proposals include suggestions to expel undocumented or poorly-documented migrants from homeless facilities and deport them. These measures are part of a new broader approach to the migrant issue, which foresees France expelling "economic" migrants and accepting new refugees. Groups working with migrants and refugees - such as Secours Catholique, la Fédération des Acteurs de la solidarité, Emmaüs Solidarité et International and Médecins du Monde - have refused to accept the new policy proposals. In November 2017, the organisations addressed a letter to President Macron expressing their opposition to this move and asking for consultations with civil society when future such government policies are considered. 

New rules on transparency and advocacy

The Sapin II law under the Haute Autorité à la Transparence de la Vie Publique (HATVP) requires all registered associations to report regularly about meetings with decision makers either at the local, regional or national level. As explained by Transparency International France, the new law (which came into force on 1st July 2017) requires associations to register in an online public directory. If the individual members of an association meet or have exchanges with a decision makers more than ten times in a year, or if the association has an advocacy officer among its staff, then it will have to comply and report these communications to the HATVP. Furthermore, organisations must report the budget expenditures for advocacy activities, as well as the types of public officials with whom they meet or communicate.

Expression

2017 electoral campaign leads to hostile atmosphere for freedom of expression

While freedom of expression is constitutionally protected in France, during the 2017 electoral campaign, presidential candidates were guilty of verbally attacking journalists and creating an adverse climate for freedom of expression. Journalist Valeria Costa-Kostritsky stated in that regard that: 

“In February, presidential candidate Fillon smeared media outlets who covered alleged corruption case. This was an important moment in the treatment of the media in France. When accused of corruption, conservative presidential candidate François Fillon refused to step down and chose to attack the media and journalists. Journalists covering his campaign saw their working conditions deteriorate and had supporters insulting and attacking them”.

In this hostile context, two journalists and four magistrates involved in reporting investigations into Fillon received death threats in March 2017.

Adès-Mével from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) commented on the threats and fears, declaring that:

“This sickening and pernicious climate poses a danger to media freedom, especially when encouraged by senior politicians, who are thereby sending a barely veiled message that any member of the public can attack the media with impunity". 

As a result of this unfavourable climate, other journalists were targeted by candidates’ supporters.

These attacks against journalists did not end with the campaign. In December 2017, left-wing leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon called for a tribunal for journalistic ethics against liars and slanderers. The announcement followed his appearance on the France 2 TV programme “L'Emission Politique” on 30th November, which he called a "media trap".

Emmanuel Macron's government has taken a controversial approach to freedom of expression. While Macron is a vocal supporter of free press and has called on the UN to protect journalists around the world, editorial outlets are reportedly nervous about media freedom under his government. Soon after the election, the new French labour minister filed a criminal complaint in June against "unknown persons" after the newspaper Liberation released leaked information on the labour reform in the pipeline. The basis for the complaint is the Bloche Law passed in 2016, which allows the state to carry on legal proceedings against "persons unknown" if the published information was stolen. This legal instrument acts as an obstacle to investigative journalism. Pauline Adès-Mével from RSF said 

“No matter how unpleasant [it is] for the labour minister, the leaks were of undeniable interest to the public and their publication falls under the public’s right to information [...] It is unacceptable in a democracy that journalists can be regarded as criminal suspects just for doing their job”.

Emmanuel Macron reacted to the scandals involving several of his ministers by asking to journalists to refrain from the: 

“never-ending search for scandal, with the constant violation of the presumption of innocence, with manhunts [...]. This frenzy, which has affected all political sides for years, is unworthy of us and of the principles of the Republic".

In a commentary on the government's growing tendency to interfere with press freedom, the chapters of the Societe des Journalistes accused the government of pressuring journalists and sending worrying signals on freedom of expression.

In the past two months, President Macron announced two bills for 2018 which could impact freedom of expression and which therefore civil society is carefully monitoring. The first is a reform of the public broadcasting sector and the second is a proposal to combat fake news.

Since 15th November 2013, the President of the Republic is no longer in charge of appointing directors of audiovisual public companies. That change, introduced by former President Hollande, safeguards the independence of Conseil supérieurs de l’audiovisuel (CSA), which was also reformed in the process. However, now Macron appears to be moving ahead with his own changes to these rules. His proposed reform foresees the merger of France televisions and Radio France into a holding entity as well as a change in the governance of CSA. Macron had previously stated that “the national broadcasting sector was the shame of the Republic”. Minister of Culture Marianne Thyssen will unveil the draft bill in spring 2018. On 3rd January 2018, President Macron also called for a plan to fight fake news to be launched in 2018, the details of which are unknown at the time of writing, but which will be closely followed and monitored by civil society and media watchdogs. 

Interference with journalists

There have been several recent cases of police interference with journalists (for more see the section below on freedom of assembly). In November 2017, two journalists were arrested in southern France and interrogated when police suspected the journalists of helping migrants from Italy enter the country. The police requested the journalists' sources, contravening journalists’ right to protect the identity of their sources. RSF Deputy Editor-in-Chief Catherine Monnet commented on the incident, stating that:

“Doing a report on migrants should not be regarded as a crime. Treating journalists as suspects when they are just doing their job is an obstruction of the right to practice journalism. We also point out that journalists cannot be forced to reveal their sources because the right of journalists to protect their sources is enshrined in France’s 1881 press law”.

Peaceful Assembly

Respect for the right to peaceful assembly has steadily deteriorated in France since the state of emergency was introduced in 2015 and became law in October 2017. In November 2017, two journalists from the popular TV programme "C à Vous" were prevented from following President Emmanuel Macron after having reported on an unauthorised demonstration by La France Insoumise (Rogue France), an opposition party against government reforms. Maxime Switek from "C à Vous" commented on the incident, stating that:

"according to the police, our reporters were too intrusive during the demonstration..."

In September 2017, the police ordered left-wing websites "Indymedia Nantes" and "Grenoble" to delete an article expressing solidarity with protesters in the Quai Valmy case.

Civil society concerned about new public security law

The Law on Public Security, which came into force on 1st January 2018, enables security guards working for private companies to carry non-lethal weapons in places under surveillance. Although the law aims to better regulate the private security sector, the National Consultative Committee for Human Rights (CNCDH) has highlighted the fact that “private security agents, who are often not properly trained for their jobs, can bear weapons in the public sphere”. The also point out that local authorities have the power to define the places which require surveillance and therefore can determine where the right to carry weapons by security guards applies. In addition, the bill grants police officers the right to use their firearms in the event of threats to their physical integrity, or when they foresee a threat to someone else’s physical integrity in public spaces. In its report, the CNCDH points out at the vague notion of a "gathering", where policemen can use firearms to “defend occupied spaces”.