Thousands of tear gas canisters fired as police clear anti-capitalist community

Peaceful Assembly

Major police operation targets anti-capitalist community

Throughout April police attempted to forcibly evict hundreds of activists occupying land in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, firing tear gas as some protesters threw Molotov cocktails and burned barricades. 

The site of the protest has been controversial for fifty years, due to the government’s plan to build an airport, which local farmers oppose due to the potential environmental impact it could have. In 2008, the site of approximately 4,000 acres was occupied by several groups which evolved over the years into collectives allegedly living outside the control of the state. The occupiers opened a range of local services, including bakeries, radio stations and newspapers. They named the area ZAD, or "zone à défendre".

After years of dispute, in January the French government announced that plans to build the airport would be permanently shelved. Nevertheles, authorities were adamant that the people occupying the land would have to be removed. In response, residents of ZAD called for solidarity, writing that:

 “Since that victorious day, the battle has transformed itself and is now no longer about a destructive infrastructure project, but about sharing the territory we inhabit. We stopped this place from being covered in concrete and so it is up to us to take care of its future. The movement therefore maintains that we should have the right to manage the land as a commons...”

People from many European cities responded with demonstrations of support and solidarity. 

According to The Guardian, about 2,500 riot police were deployed to the occupied land. French NGO La Ligue des Droits de l’Homme (League of Human Rights) condemned the disproportionate deployment of police forces which led to clashes with the protesters, stating that:

“a place of work and life regarded as emblematic was destroyed even though its occupants had expressed their will to regularize their situation, but without wanting to comply with the required formalism of an individual approach". (translated from French)

Some activists have viewed these evictions as part of a wider global trend against alternative ways of living.

According to the French Journalists' Union (SNJ), over the course of the initial three-day effort by police, which began on 9th April, journalists were prevented from covering the eviction. The police provided the media with video, a move that raised concerns over censorship. The Union issued a statement, declaring that:

"When they arrived on location, journalists (the real ones) were confined to the side of the road then evacuated from the zone under escort, while being forbidden to film. Some of them managed to get back to the ZAD by side roads. They were controlled, threatened and banned from access. The SNJ firmly condemns the practice of supplying, with the excuse of security, 'ready made' and sanitised images of undergoing 'sensitive' operations by the government".

Following negotiations with the government, ZAD residents were initially given a deadline of 23rd April to meet the government's demands or face the complete removal of all people and dwellings on the site. In late April, French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe extended that deadline until 14th May 2018, after which non-compliance with the government's demands would result in their removal from the area. Activists at ZAD continue to organise and prepare to remain on the site.

Violence against journalists covering protests

Reporters without borders and Index of censorship are reporting an increase in police brutality against journalists who cover street protests and strikes.

On 15th April, according to the newspaper Libération, photographer Cyril Zannettacci was shot by police with a stun grenade while reporting on the police action at Notre-Dame-des-Landes. Zannettacci said that the grenade was "thrown blindly at a group of people who did not display any hostile intentions”.

Four days later on 19th April, Jan Schmidt-Whitley, a photographer with the Pictorium photo agency, and Karine Pierre from production studio Hans Lucas, were also targeted by stun grenades fired by the police while reporting on a demonstration against government reforms in Paris.

Pauline Adès-Mével, the head of Reporters Without Borders EU-Balkans desk noted that: 

“Covering a demonstration or a public event in France is nowadays a risky activity for reporters and photographers. A press armband or media equipment no longer suffices to protect them from the police”.


Press room to be moved from Elysée

In mid-February, the French President Emmanuel Macron announced that the press room inside the Elysée Palace, where major news outlets have desks, will be moved down the street after the summer. The official reason for the relocation is so that  journalists covering the head of state can be provided with a larger space.

The move raised transparency concerns among journalists, as the current position of the press room allows the press to more easily cover meetings with the president. The CIVICUS Monitor reported that, since taking office, Macron’s government has adopted a controversial approach to freedom of expression, including impeding some journalists' access to the government and interfering with the work of others.

For example, on 2nd April newspaper Les Échos refused to publish an interview with French Minister of Transport Élisabeth Borne about public sector strikes because the office of the Prime Minister had modified the text. Les Échos stated that: 

“...the desire to control this technical minister can be vexatious. An interview, however cautious, with the latter, was so rewritten by the services of the Prime Minister that Les Echos refuse to publish on March 13".  (translated from French)

In response, the government said: 

“the principle of proofreading interviews is a well-established convention, and that avoids possible misinterpretations in the transcripts of interviews [...] Often, the ministers concerned benefits from re-reading to reformulate, simplify or enrich. That is what happened with the interview of the Minister of Transport". (translated from French)

Macron's government has also tried to circumvent the traditional press in order to get his message across. According to POLITICO:

"[Macron's] office has increasingly used social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube to make statements rather than publicly answering media questions".
Law on Business Secrecy

A controversial bill on business secrecy was adopted in the National Assembly on 28th March and in the Senate on 18th April during an accelerated procedure. The law is a transposition of a European directive adopted in 2016, which is aimed at strengthening business secrecy within private enterprises. The law has been criticised because of the broad definition of "business secrets", which allows businesses to classify any information internal to a company as such. Critics fear that anyone simply holding this information could be prosecuted under this law, even if such information were in the public interest. Therefore, they fear this bill could undermine investigative journalism and threaten whistle blowers.

On 21st March, the "On ne se taira pas" (We will not be silent) collective which includes NGOs, academics, journalists, and whistleblowers, wrote an editorial in newspaper Le Monde warning the public about the consequences that the law could have for freedom of expression in France. The piece defined the law as a "weapon of massive deterrence" and was signed by several organisations, including associations of journalists of major newspapers, radio and television. The article states: 

“The breach of business secrecy would occur as soon as this information is obtained or disseminated and their disclosure would be punishable by criminal penalties. The derogations instituted by the text are too weak to guarantee the exercise of fundamental freedoms. Scandals like that of the pick or bisphenol A, or business like the Panama Papers or LuxLeaks may no longer be brought to the attention of citizens". (Translated from French)

The collective also sent a letter to Prime Minister Macron urging him to reject the law. Journalists' societies and associations have demanded that the law's application be restricted to "competitive economic actors" and that there should be an exception for information that is of public interest.The Pollinis platform also launched a petition to oppose the law, collecting more than 500,000 signatures.

Fears of misuse by commercial courts of the notion of business secrecy were already raised in the context of the judgment in the Conforama v. Challenges case. In February 2018, a French court decided to censor an article by the magazine Challenges which reported the economic difficulties of the firm Conforama. According to the ruling, this information would undermine the confidentiality of ongoing economic negotiations. However, French newspaper Mediapart stated that this information was already in the public domain.