French

Police violence against protesters and journalists under spotlight

Association

Positive ruling for HRDs

On 26th February 2020, the Court of Cassation, which is the highest court in the French judicial system, made a historical judgment in favour of human rights defenders. The court was reviewing the case of Raphael Faye-Prio, a volunteer at NGO Roya Citoyenne, who was found guilty for transporting four migrants in his car in 2017 and given a three year suspended prison sentence. In its decision, the court considered that Faye-Prio was not acting in his personal capacity but for purposes of a humanitarian goal and thus the principle of the fraternity enacted by the Constitutional Council in July 2018 would have led to charges being dropped. Instead, the judges noted in his records that he acted on behalf the NGO Roya Citoyenne and that while he did act with intent, it was not a purely individual act.

The court stated:

“The protection enjoyed by the authors of acts carried out for an exclusively humanitarian purpose is limited to purely individual and personal actions and does not exclude a non-spontaneous and militant action exercised within an association (translated from French).”
Associations cash strapped due to COVID-19

On 20th March 2020 the national platform Le Mouvement associatif, in conjunction with RNMA and conducted by Recherches et Solidarités, launched a survey to analyse the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis on the sector. It collected nearly 12,000 responses in 10 days. The preliminary results of the survey show that 70% of the associations have had to suspend their usual activities and that more than 40% of them expect a significant loss of income and cash flow difficulties due to the postponement of activities or financial constraints. The other main concern is the termination of some sponsorships, both public and private, and the significant decrease in donations which will impact on the availability of resources.

The Government announced several measures to support businesses. In its statement Le Mouvement associatif added that while associations were granted access to government economic measures for the business sector, these measures do not respond to concerns of the non-profit sector linked to the maintenance of public funding, whether from the state or local authorities, in the medium term.

“The Mouvement associatif hopes to see the Government take firm commitments very quickly, in an inter-ministerial approach, and by local authorities, to secure this funding, which is essential for the sustainability of the associative fabric and its capacity for action (translated from French)."

Peaceful Assembly

Climate protesters take on G7 summit

The G7 Summit was hosted in France on 24th and 25th August 2019, in Biarritz (Southwest coast). Thousands of protesters marched in neighbouring cities to oppose the organisation of the event. Protesters notably accused French President Macron of hypocritical discourse when it comes to the fight against climate change and civil liberties.

“We want to show that while Emmanuel Macron plays the role of the climate’s superhero on the international stage at his G7 summit, green activists are mobilising in his country,” organisers said.

In addition, they say that the G7 leaders’ claims to “fight inequalities” are a farce.

Instead, the summit promotes policies that have widened social inequalities, reinforced divisions and domination due to racism and patriarchy, organised the industrialisation of agriculture, fed into the armament industry, accelerated environmental crises, climate malfunctions and the loss of biodiversity”.

More than 13,000 police officers secured the area around the G7 Summit and all protests were banned in an enlarged perimeter. The atmosphere was heated as the French President warned against “violent groups of protesters that meet at every G7 and G20”. Representatives from Amnesty International were blocked from covering the event. In a statement the organisation emphasised the importance of the right to peaceful assembly.

“From the beginning of this G7 Summit in Biarritz, it was clear that the French authorities had a plan to restrict freedom of assembly and movement, with the announced presence of more than 13,000 police to man the area. French authorities must stop treating the right to protest with contempt. Unless the protesters have been involved in violent acts, they must be freed immediately and unconditionally,” - Marco Perolini, Amnesty International’s France Researcher.

Around a hundred people were arrested between 23rd and 25th August 2019, with about 70 placed in pre-charge detention. Members from French Human Rights League (LDH), who attended as observers, were also arrested after an identity check. They were detained on grounds of ‘participation in a group with a view to committing violence or damage’ and later released.

The LDH condemned police attempts to “intimidate” human rights workers.

“The LDH strongly denounces these attempts at intimidation and these procedures authorised by the public prosecutor of Bayonne which aim to dissuade citizen observation missions which have been organised by the LDH and its partners for several months during social movements in order to shed light on law enforcement strategies and known violence on the basis of duly established facts (translated from French)."
Pension reform protests bring services to a standstill

In November 2019, the government announced reforms to the pension system, which sparked the biggest protests under Macron’s presidency. French rail workers, air-traffic controllers, teachers and public sector staff rallied against the announced universality of the pension system. Unions say the proposed universal pension system will force public and private sector employees to work beyond the legal retirement age of 62 or face a severe reduction in their pensions.

The first protest took place on 5th December 2019, with an estimated 800,000 to 1,5 million protesters across the country. In a climate of distrust towards the government, one year after the start of the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vest) movement, protests generally were peaceful. However, the Paris mobilisation, the largest one in the country, saw multiple clashes between protesters and anti-riot police.

About 40 protesters were arrested on the same day. The police disciplinary body (Inspection générale de la Police nationale, IGPN) announced they would investigate cases of police brutality after a video which was shared online captured excessive violence by police against a protester.The video shows two policemen dressed in plain clothing beating up a man who is laying on the ground. In the end, the two officers left the scene without arresting the protester and witnesses said the situation was very confusing. According to witnesses, police officers repeatedly charged the protesters and coralled them during the demonstration to split up groups of protesters.

On 17th December 2019, another mass protest was staged following a press conference by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe which detailed the pension reform. The march took place between Place de la République and Place de la Nation and clashes occurred at the end of the demonstration. While protesters gathered around the end point of the march, police fired teargas and charged at demonstrators to disperse them.

After close to 40 days of strikes which brought transport and other services to a standstill in France, Prime Minister Phillipe said that he was willing to withdraw the pension reform proposals.

However, on 3rd March 2020 hundreds took to the streets to protest governments attempts to push through the Pension Reform Bill without a vote in Parliament. The government evoked article 49.3, which permits it to unilaterally pass any bill relating to financial or social security issues without consulting parliament. The law was passed shortly after opposition parties brought two no confidence votes against President Macron, which failed due to his party’s majority in parliament.

Police tear gas feminist protesters

On 7th March 2020 groups gathered to march for International Women’s Day, which is commemorated around the world on 8th March. However, videos circulated online showed police officers using tear gas against protesters and attacking women during the march. Examples of excessive force included police officers charging protestors and beating them with batons. France’s Gender Equality Minister Marlène Schiappa condemned the violence and has demanded an investigation into the attacks.

Concerns raised over police abuse and COVID-19 emergency law

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, on 22nd March 2020 the French National Assembly adopted the “State of Health Emergency” law. The law gives the French prime minister the“power to declare, by decree and upon recommendation of the Health Minister, general measures setting limits to the freedom of movement, the freedom of enterprise and the freedom to congregate and would allow him to proceed to requisition all necessary goods and services to fight against a health disaster.” 

The law goes beyond health emergency measures and includes provisions for postponing of the second round of the French municipal elections. Critics have warned that the law gives government the ability to practise an indefinite scope of action which could undermine the rule of law in France.

All public gatherings are totally prohibited, and citizens are required to provide a written (or digital) authorisation for movement, under certain conditions.

During this period accountability and scrutiny is necessary. However, the Constitutional Council has seen its activity suspended, raising serious concerns around checks and balances. In response to this, the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH) is setting up an observatory to monitor the impact of health emergency measures and the “Covid-19 ordinances” in respect of fundamental rights. Moreover, the French Ligue des Droits de l’Homme (LDH), together with its partners, announced the creation of a Citizen Observatory. The observatory will aim to collect testimonies on abusive controls or measures used by the state or local institutions during the state of emergency.

On 25th March 2020, the Paris Observatory of Public Freedoms reported:

“a climate of mistrust, a logic of repression and... the lack of precision in the legal framework surrounding the monitoring missions of the police forces creates risks of arbitrary decisions and disproportionate use of force, which have already begun to materialise.”

Since the measures were introduced there have been several reports of police violence posted on social media “showing residents apparently beaten, gassed."

On 10th April 2020 several civil society organisations wrote a letter to the Minister of Interior following several reports of police abuse. There have been a number of examples where police issued citizens with infractions but misinterpreted government regulations.

“Aware of the magnitude and gravity of the current health crisis, we know that what is required of the police is delicate and that the mission assigned to them is difficult. However, we recall that the state of health emergency must not violate the rule of law and cannot justify discriminatory controls or the use of unjustified or disproportionate force by the police. Nor does it justify disproportionate sanctions, the absence of a fair trial or an effective appeal mechanism (translated from French)."

Expression

On 26th August 2019 the Council of Europe issued an alert on threats towards journalists covering the G7 summit in Biarritz, which took place on 24th and 25th August 2019. Journalists and news associations, such as Aljazeera English, claimed that police arbitrarily confiscated protective equipment. Many journalists reported that police used containment methods to prevent them from filming arrests of protesters alongside the G7 Summit. The police also confiscated the material of several journalists and told them to go to the Bayonne police station to get it back, thus keeping them away from the protests.

On 29th August 2019, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) wrote to the French Minister of Interior, asking him to put an end to unjustified police hindrance against journalists. They also urged the minister to ensure that police forces respect commitments to media freedom made by President Macron earlier in May 2019.

In a separate development, three journalists were injured in Paris on 5th December 2019 during protests against the controversial reforms to the pension system. As reported on social media:

  • Taha Bouhafs sustained a knee injury after police officers shot a grenade
  • Mustafa Yalgin of the Turkish news agency Anadolu was injured by a tear gas canister
  • Gaspard Glanz of Tarani News was injured on the leg by five shrapnel grenades and his equipment destroyed

The National Journalists’ Union (SNJ) reported that at least 25 other reporters suffered injuries or violence during the protest. The trade union released a statement, notably calling upon the United Nations special rapporteurs on Human Rights Defenders and on Peaceful Assembly to address President Macron on media freedom.

On 20th December 2019, Reporters Without Borders, together with 13 other journalists who faced police violence while covering France’s “Gilets Jaunes” (yellow vest) protests between November 2018 and May 2019, filed a joint complaint at the public prosecutor’s office in Paris. During this period an “unprecedented number of journalists were injured by police”. The group claims that despite introducing themselves as journalists, they still experienced police violence.

We are filing this complaint today so that these cases of violence are punished and those responsible are put on trial and convicted, but also to get the authorities to carry out a complete overhaul of the way protests are policed, so that journalists are no longer targeted by police officers responsible for maintaining order,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire.

In a separate incident, journalist Taha Bouhafs was arrested by police on 17th January 2020 for allegedly tweeting about demonstrators planning a disruption outside a theatre performance at the Bouffes du Nord, which President Macron was attending. He was taken into custody for “participation in a group formed to commit violence or damage.”

The LDH called for Bouhafs’ release:

“Arresting a journalist - or any other citizen who would have done so - for a tweet, for giving information, is a senseless measure, unacceptable in the rule of law (translated from French)."

In addition, France has experienced a decline in the RSF World Press Freedom Index 2020 ranking by two places, from 32 in 2019 to 34.