French

Worsening crackdown on civic space by Macron’s government to preserve ‘republican values’

Worsening crackdown on civic space by Macron’s government to preserve ‘republican values’
Over 13,000 people have been detained for protesting over the Global Security bill (Photo by Siegfried Modola/Getty Images).

Background

Following the murder of teacher Samuel Paty as a result of an islamophobia smear campaign, and the terrorist attack in Nice at the end of October 2020, French authorities have cracked down on civil society organisations (CSOs) accused of opposing the ‘Republican order’ and being ‘radical Islamists’. CSOs have also been under attack from extreme right and mainstream political forces, who have expressed stigmatising views towards Muslims and Muslim organisations.

Lead CSOs and trade unions came together to oppose the terrorism and discriminatory statements, stressing that they “can only reinforce deleterious cleavages” in society and “feed the machines of hatred”. In a statement of 21st October 2020, they wrote:

This act was committed in the name of fundamentalist Islamism. It is this ideology and those who carry it that must be fought relentlessly. The stigmatisation of Muslims, into which certain political forces have wanted to drag the country for many years, can only reinforce deleterious divisions and feed the machinery of hatred.” (translated from French).
“It is through an ambitious policy of education, within the framework of public and secular schools with the involvement of popular education movements complementary to public education and local authorities, to transmit and keep alive the values of the Republic through a policy of social justice that we will reduce the obscurantist dangers and guarantee our freedoms.” (translated from French).

Following this, the French government led several initiatives which threatened civic space and the rule of law in France.

Coupled with these incidents, on 21st January 2021, the French Assemblée Nationale took the decision to extend France’s state of emergency until 1st June 2021. In effect, this extension means that since 2015 France will have been placed under a state of emergency for a cumulative period of more than three years. It also means that there will be a continuation of restrictions on individual and collective freedoms and the weakening of institutional and citizen checks and balances.

Association

Dissolution of Collective Against Islamophobia in France

French CSOs showed concern over the call by Gérald Darmanin, French Minister of the Interior, to dissolve the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), an anti-racist organisation which is a member of the European Network Against Racism. This threat has triggered a wave of support towards the organisation which has been fighting against racism and discrimination, which includes the targeting of Muslims for the last 20 years.

On 2nd December 2020, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin announced in a tweet that the Council of Ministers had notified the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) that it was being dissolved by decree.

The organisation had already voluntarily dissolved in order to maintain its legal actions against islamophobia active abroad. In a statement the CCIF said:

"For more than a week now we have been responding to the various grievances we have been accused of in the notice of dissolution and we have demonstrated that it was based on unfounded, biased or misleading elements. Worse: we are globally reproached for doing our legal work, applying the law and demanding its application when it is questioned.”
“No anti-racist association has ever been the object of such attacks in France. Never has an association been targeted in this way, through thousands of insults and threats, accounts and dedicated full-time people whose sole objective is to destabilise, intimidate and harass the CCIF.” (translated from French)

The League of Human Rights (LHR) also expressed their concern over the decision to dissolve CCIF, stating that it contributes to “increasing tensions and reinforcing the idea that it is indeed all Muslims who are implicated here”.

Given the context of the killings and stigmatisation of Muslims, this incident is concerning because of the misrepresentation of faith and ideology of the CCIF. The government's actions represent an extreme restriction on the freedom of association and sets a precedent for the use of political intimidation to shut down human rights organisations in the name of the “fight against Islamism”, ensuring fertile ground for attacks on the rule of law. As a response, the European Centre for Not-for-Profit Law prepared a brief highlighting key international and European standards that need to be respected when associations are dissolved.

New draft law on strengthening republican values

The draft legislation “to Strengthen Republican Values”, also known as the Anti-Separatism law, was approved by a special committee of the National Assembly. The draft law was introduced by President Macron on 21st October 2020 in response to threats of fundamentalism. The government then presented and defended it on 1st February 2020 in front of MPs. The law on Separatism will follow a fast-track procedure, thus leaving only two weeks for debates in the Lower Chamber.

A large coalition of academics, lawyers and associations wrote an open letter condemning the unprecedent attacks against freedom of association initiated by the Anti-Separatism draft law. They underline the opinion made public by the Council of State, France’s highest court, which earlier in December wrote in its opinion on the Draft Law that:

“The measures of the project concern practically all constitutionally and conventionally guaranteed public rights and freedoms, and the most prominent among them: freedom of association, freedom of conscience and worship, freedom of assembly, expression, opinion, communication, freedom of the press…”

The amended draft text especially introduces the obligation (Art. 10-1) by any recipient of public funding to commit to a Contract of Republican Engagement. Among the ten requirements of this Contract (yet to be published), the law mentions the obligation to “promote public order”. The signatories of the open letter have warned that there is a possibility of misinterpretation of such a vague definition. They also highlighted that many associations engage in demonstrations, as guaranteed by the French Constitution. The implementation of this Contract could for instance sanction associations which use peaceful civil disobedience as a way to protest or express discontent.

As explained by the French Mouvement Associatif, the current legislative framework for associations already contains the principles stipulated by the Contract of Republican Engagement. They fear that this Contract would be used as a as a tool by the public authorities to exert control over Associationsand cast suspicion on them. The Mouvement Associatif states in an op-ed published on 18th January 2021, that

“Under these conditions, this new "republican employment contract" is either useless or dubious if it increases discretionary power over the judgement of compliance with "republican values". 

Peaceful Assembly

Global Security law

On 24th November 2020, French MPs adopted the draft bill on Global Security, presented by the government for a fast-track procedure. However, outrage by thousands of citizens, associations and journalists pushed the lawmakers to review the content and amend some of the most controversial articles, such as Article 24, prohibiting the filming of police officers on duty and the dissemination of images on social media. The draft text is now in the hands of the Senate, the upper legislative chamber. The latter summoned French Minister of Interior for a hearing on 12th January 2021 during which he admitted that “Article 24 was not well written” and understood the criticism against it.

In the meantime, the Council of State banned the use of drones to film demonstrations in Paris. The highest administrative court, seized by the Quadrature du Net, decided on 22nd December 2020 that the Prefect of Police of Paris had to stop this surveillance practice without delay. The use of drones during demonstrations currently has no legal background. Despite this, Didier Lallement, the Prefect of Police of Paris, used it on several occasions in the last few months. Before Senators, Gerald Darmanin said that “everyone but police forces can use drones” and that the aim of Article 22 of the Global Security Bill will allow its generalisation to oversee demonstrations.

The Senate is now expected to amend the Draft text and adopt it by March 2021, before another reading at the National Assembly. Objectors to the draft law have meanwhile maintained ongoing protests over the last few weeks. More than 200,000 people demonstrated on 16th January 2021 across the country, and a further 60 protests were organised across France on 30th January 2021. In what associations called “mostly peaceful protests”, several incidents took place and irregularities were also reported. The most controversial protest occurred in Paris, where organisers noted that police officers blocked access to the protest, refused to reveal their identification numbers and assaulted participants. Amnesty France reported that dozens of demonstrators were victims of arbitrary detentions during protests on 12th December 2020, where 142 people were arrested in one afternoon in Paris, 19 of whom were minors, but 80% were released without prosecution. Amnesty International said:

These practices constitute violations of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly: they prevent those arrested from participating in protests and may dissuade them from returning thereafter. They also constitute violations of the right to liberty and security of persons. The French authorities must stop intimidating demonstrators and change all laws that undermine the right to peaceful assembly” (translated from French)

LDH has recorded more than 13,000 arrests so far. Multiple organisations and news outlets such as L’Humanite and Le Monde have called out attacks on freedom of peaceful assembly.

The collective #StopLoiSecuriteGlobale welcomed the invitation by a Senatorial committee to discuss Article 24. Thus, several senators want to re-write it, due to the fear of it being recycled in Article 18 of the Draft Law on Separatism.

Eviction of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers

On 23rd November 2020, 400 migrants were violently evicted from Place de la Republique in Saint-Denis, Paris. Liberation reported that migrants, journalists and civil society activists suffered disproportionate use of police force, as videos posted on social media showed scenes of violence, rough tactics and tear gas being used to disperse a migrant camp in the Paris suburbs. The Minister of the Interior, Gerald Darmanin, described images of the dispersal as “shocking”, and Deputy Mayor in charge of housing, Ian Brossat, commented that the state had “made a lamentable show”. Paris prosecutors meanwhile opened a criminal investigation into alleged use of violence by a policeman who was seen tripping a migrant as he ran away.

LDH reported that it wasn’t the “violent dismantling of the pacifist chains of women, men, associations and collectives of LDH, Utopias, Medecin du Monde, elected representatives and lawyers” that caused the most anger,but rather, the fact that those evicted were left without accommodation solutions (despite this having been proposed by elected representatives to the Paris prefecture). This controversial eviction comes just a week after migrants were evacuated from makeshift shelters in the northern suburb of Saint-Denis, many of whom were not provided with alternative shelter. Coupled with this, the extended state of emergency has fueled abuse by authorities and police violence against homeless people and migrants. The eviction not only constitutes a violation of the right to liberty and security of people, but also to the right to peaceful assembly as those arrested are prevented from participating in protests, and others deterred from returning thereafter.

Climate protesters arrested

On 3rd October 2020, climate protesters staged an action by entering the tarmac at Bordeaux-Mérignac airport to stop air traffic. The protest was organised by ANV-COP 21 Gironde and Extinction Rébellion. Seven activists were arrested and are facing charges for “obstructing the movement of an aircraft”. They face the possibility of five years in jail or a fine of 18,000 euros. However, the prosecutor requested a €500 suspended fine. The outcome will be delivered on 29th March 2021.

Expression

In an op-ed published in early January in the daily Le Monde, the President of the Paris Bar Association and the Secretary General of RSF warn about the danger of the draft Separatism law. They notably point out that Article 18 of this law could ultimately be more harmful for journalists than the Global Security Law. The latter reiterates the provision from Article 24 of the Global Security Law: It creates an offence of endangering the life of others by disseminating information relating to private, family or professional life. (Art. 18.2). However, a specific paragraph (Art.18.3) gives a special provision for police officers and elected mandate holders, thus strengthening sanctions against perpetrators.

In December 2020, the Council of Europe also urged the Senate to amend the most sensitive articles of the Global Security Bill, which the Council considers threatening to press freedom. Article 24 of the draft law "infringes on the freedom of expression", according to the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe.

Incidents against journalists

On 9th January 2021 in Calais, police denied access to journalist Romain Mahmoud from Le Média and freelancer Peter Yeung when they attempted to cover the eviction of refugees and migrants from an encampment (see above). It is reported that police blocked access for the press and prevented them from filming or observing the eviction. Similarly, In December 2020, freelance photojournalist Louis Witter and journalist Simon Hamy were also prevented by police from covering the eviction of refugees in Grande-Synthe and Calais. They were blocked on five occasions on 29th and 30th December 2020. Police also took pictures of the journalists’ identity documents. The journalists have approached the Administrative Court of Lille to declare the police actions an infringement on their fundamental freedoms and have required the court to "allow them access to the various eviction sites" to do their journalistic work. Journalists' union, SNJ (premier syndicat de journalistes) said:

“These refusals, preventing documentation and information on these tent evacuation actions, seriously hamper the exercise of the right of any citizen to hold any agent to account.... This obstacle is constituted directly by preventing us from accessing the site and indirectly by preventing a larger number of citizens from exercising this right. " (translated from French)

On 18th January 2021, journalist Adrien AdcaZz, from online media QG, recovered his press equipment after police confiscated it on 12th December 2020 during a 48-hour custody. He was one of the journalists arrested while covering the protest against the "Global Security" bill in Paris. The journalist reported that the camera’s SD memory cards were damaged and no longer readable. He stated that they contained sensitive images of the protest.