National Assembly approves controversial ‘Separatism Bill’, massive protests opposing #PassSanitaire

National Assembly approves controversial ‘Separatism Bill’, massive protests opposing #PassSanitaire
(Photo by Siegfried Modola/Getty Images)


National Assembly approves controversial ‘Separatism Bill’

On 23rd July 2021, France’s National Assembly approved the controversial ‘Separatism Bill’ (also known as ‘projet de loi confortant le respect des principes de la République’), by 49 votes to 19, with 5 abstentions. The bill proposes to introduce a binding “republican engagement contract” on associations, granting administrative authorities the power to withdraw public funding to associations not complying with “the principles of the French Republic”. Upon the passing of the law, CSO Ligue des Droits de L’Homme (LDH) said:

“Despite the mobilisations by civil society, the PJL separatism has indeed been adopted by Parliament. This law endangers the balance achieved by the great secular laws & is a danger for the public freedoms of all.”

Amongst the many critics of the bill, a coalition of over 18 CSOs for associative freedoms, La Coalition pour les libertés associatives, has actively advocated against several articles of the legislation.

  • On 14th June 2021 the coalition issued a joint letter (signed by 32 organisations) to French opposition MPs, calling on them to seize the French Constitutional Council in the event the Separatism bill would be approved by Parliament.
  • On 28th June 2021 the coalition issued a joint press statement on the 120th anniversary of the "Freedom of association law", once again stressing concerns for the crackdown on associative freedoms.
  • On 26th July 2021, following the passing of the bill, the coalition coordinated the submission of an ‘external contribution’ to the Constitutional Council, which was signed by around 30 associations. The contribution highlights the unconstitutionality of several articles of the bill directly concerning associations

European CSOs have also joined mobilisation efforts against the Separatism bill, raising concerns about the disproportionate impact on minorities and associations standing up for their rights. On 3rd June 2021, over ten national and European level CSOs, including CIVICUS, wrote to the European Commission and European Fundamental Rights Agency to express their concerns for rights and civil liberties and to urge the European Commission to question France.

“We are alarmed by the fact that the law is dramatically increasing the control of public authorities and institutions on the right to associate, departing from the more than centennial liberal framework that made the French civil society sector one of the strongest and vibrant in Europe and the world”, the CSOs stated in the letter.

CSOs also warned that the Bill sets a dangerous precedent for Europe, not least in taking into consideration restrictions on foreign funding to associations in Hungary, later proposed in Poland and Bulgaria. 

On 13th August 2021 the Constitutional Council gave the green light to the Separatism bill. The court only invalidated two measures of the bill. One measure relates to the suspension of the activities of an association which is subject to dissolution procedure, which can last up to six months. The Constitutional Council considers that this measure "violated freedom of association which is not necessary, appropriate and proportionate."

Government proposes new offence to punish trespassing on runways

In a further move which cracks down on environmental activists, a new bill appears to respond to growing acts of civil disobedience related to consequences of air traffic on the climate. The bill proposes the creation of a new offence which punishes trespassing on airport runways, including a six-month prison sentence and a 7,500 Euro fine for anyone who enters the “airside area of an airport”. The fine is doubled when the action is “committed in a meeting” or preceded, accompanied or followed by an act of destruction, degradation or deterioration”. Previously, the government had attempted to include these provisions in the controversial Global Security law, which have since been declared inadmissible. As a result, this new legislation cracking down on environmental activists has had much less media attention. Clara Gonzales, Greenpeace lawyer, highlighted that with these new provisions, “it will be easier to prosecute and condemn”. By facilitating the criminalisation of activists, rather than listening to their concerns, the new bill raises concerns regarding the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. The International Air Transport Association has predicted that air traffic will almost double by 2039.

This news also comes in the wake of a new Climate law, which CSOs argue is “full of false promises” and lack of parliamentary ambition. In July 2021, the Council of State ordered the French government to take “all useful measures” to put France back on the right climate trajectory in the next nine months. Jean-Francois Julliard, director of Greenpeace France said:

“This climate law will remain a revealer of the climate-cynicism of the government and of Emmanuel Macron who will have marked the five-year term. The announcements with great pomp and the promises to citizens of the Climate Convention will have been followed by successive waivers and small arrangements with the lobbies. While the Council of State has just ordered the State to act within nine months to put the country back on the right climate path, and the High Council for the Climate has once again denounced France's delay, this law is the missed opportunity to really raise the bar by promoting structuring and socially just measures.”

Protests against the law were also staged in several cities during May 2021, calling on the French government to take real action to fight climate change

Anti-corruption association gains renewal of accreditation

Anticor, a French association acting against corruption and conflicts of interest, has recently gained renewal of their accreditation to act as a civil party in corruption cases after several months of hurdles and delays. The decision on accreditation, which was meant to have been reached on 2nd February 2021, was postponed until 2nd April 2021, after authorities repeatedly requested further documentation from Anticor, some of which was unrelated to rules for granting the accreditation. The risk of non-renewal would have put several corruption cases already brought forward by Anticor in jeopardy.

The delay triggered a media campaign, in which Anticor asked citizens to support their organisation in the granting of their civil party status. With the support of Voxpublic, an open letter signed by 50 French associations and collectives was published by the Huffington Post, calling on the Prime Minister to approve the accreditation. As one of just three accredited anticorruption organisations, the CSOs highlighted how the risk of non-renewal was particularly worrying given the wider context of a “climate of mistrust towards associations committed to the general interest and the defence of associative freedoms.”

On 3rd April 2021, Anticor thanked their supporters, following the confirmation of renewed accreditation. 

Peaceful Assembly

Demonstrations across France oppose #PassSanitaire

In the fourth week of successive protests against France’s new “health pass”, almost a quarter of a million people took to the streets across 180 cities to oppose the latest extension of the controversial pass. Protests were largely peaceful, with 35 arrests made nationwide. The extension of the pass took effect on 21st July 2021, in an attempt to boost vaccination rates and stem the spread of the Delta variant. Verification of the pass requires holders to be in possession of either a vaccination certificate, a negative PCR certificate (less than 48 hours old) or a certificate of recovery, and is required for access to theatres, cafes, restaurants, shopping centres and transportation such as trains, planes and coaches for long distance journeys.

Opponents of the pass are calling it a “health dictatorship”, arguing that these new regulations encroach on civil liberties and deny any form of democratic debate or consultation. Concerns have also been raised regarding the transferal of checks on health status and identity to private actors, and discrimination against those with reduced economic means, as the government moves to halt free PCR testing. CSO Ligue des Droits de l’Homme said the health pass was a “bad move for democracy”, stating that

“…the government has adopted the path of authoritarianism which has become its trademark.” 

Police Observatory Network gains official recognition at protests, rulebook provisions for heavy handed policing are outlawed

On 10th June 2021, the State Council partially annulled the National Law Enforcement Plan due to mechanisms being contrary to the right to demonstrate. This decision follows mobilisation by CSOs and unions, including the Ligue des Droits de L'Homme and Police Observatory Network (Observatoires des pratiques policières), who filed voluntary contributions to the Constitutional Council on France’s controversial “Global Security Law”.

In response, the High Court, which highlighted the essential role of the press and observers, underlined that legislative provisions governing the ability to wear protective equipment, to remain on the premises after dispersal orders, or to gain access to particular information, were tainted with illegality. The same conclusion was reached for ‘kettling’ and encirclement police practices. The decision has triggered a rewriting of the legislation, which includes provisions for official status of observers at protests. This is a significant breakthrough for the Police Observatory Network, which plays a fundamental role in the defence of freedom of peaceful assembly, documenting and denouncing repressive police practices and policies. The Observatory Network won the European Civic Pride award for their successful mobilisation.

Use of drones by police back on the security agenda

Despite success driven by CSOs in their efforts to revoke parts of the Global Security Bill via citizen referral to the Constitutional Council, on 19th July 2021, the Minister of the Interior and the Minister of Justice unveileda new bill on criminal liability and internal security. Provisions of the bill have provoked concern about the violation of civil liberties in relation to the right to peaceful assembly and the right to privacy. Specifically, Article 8 proposes the use of drones “for the prevention of acts of terrorism”, “for border surveillance” or even for “the regulation of transport flows”, with authorisation given for three months, although in the case of a demonstration it should last “only for the duration of the gathering concerned”. Critics argue that the text is unclear, and question how police will decide on types of places or districts which will be targeted for “the prevention of attacks on the security of persons and goods in places particularly exposed…to the risk of aggression, theft or trafficking of weapons, human beings or narcotics”.

The use of drones for policing operations also raises concerns regarding the right to privacy. Martin Drago, lawyer at Quadrature.dunet, an association defending freedoms against censorship and surveillance, points out that

“[drones] are not cameras like the others, they film very wide shots, they are mobile and very discreet. You cannot see them. Drones are an extremely powerful surveillance machine".

It also remains unclear how police would inform those present during a rally that they will be employing the use of drones. The text of the bill is yet to be debated by the National Assembly and the Senate.

Police officer assaults an observer at protest

On 1st May 2021, three observation teams covered a trade union demonstration in Paris. One of the observers filming the policing of the demonstrations was attacked by an officer and aggressively pushed to the ground with no apparent justification. This incident comes despite the individual being visibly identifiable to authorities as an observer. In a press release, the Paris Observatoire condemned the attack and called for the respect of the physical integrity of observers, an obligation which is the responsibility of the Interior Minister and police. The Observatoire also reported that violence and numerous breaches of respect for public freedoms were also observed in law enforcement practices during the protest. 


Journalists targeted by NSO spyware

Two journalists from Mediapart, Lénaïg Bredoux and Edwy Plene, were spied on via software installed on their smartphones. The news was uncovered as part of the Pegasus Project, an international consortium of more than 80 journalists from 17 media organisations across 10 countries. The NSO spyware has facilitated human rights violations around the world on a massive scale, including the leak of 50,000 phone numbers of potential surveillance targets, among them heads of state, journalists and activists. Surveillance of the two Mediapart journalists took place in 2019, with surveillance of Bredoux continuing in 2020. In both cases, the Pegasus Project revealed that the software had been “operated by Moroccan secret services”. The journalists have submitted a complaint to the Paris public prosecutor. More recent findings reveal that Emmanuel Macron was also a target of the spyware, alongside 13 other heads of state.

Following the allegations against Morocco, the Moroccan government filed complaints of defamation in France against several media outlets. On 22nd July 2021, Morocco launched its first defamation case against Amnesty and Paris-based NGO Forbidden Stories, the two organisations which obtained the leaked record of phone data. Four direct summonses were issued: two against daily Le Monde, a member of the consortium of 17 international media that revealed the scandal, and its director Jérôme Fenoglio; a third targets the investigation website Mediapart and its founder Edwy Plenel; and the last one targets Radio France, also a member of the consortium. In addition, on 28th July 2021, Moroccan Interior Minister Abdelouafi Laftit filed a libel complaint in Paris against Mediapart and its founder Edwy Plenel.

Journalists and media outlets targeted during health pass protests

In the latest demonstrations against the health pass that mobilised a quarter of a million people across France in several cities, journalists and media outlets were “targeted, harassed, intimidated and insulted”, reported the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ). In Belfort, protesters attempted to break into the premises of regional newspaper L'Est Républicain and radio France Bleu Belfort Montbéliard. Media outlets also reported that journalists were harassed during the demonstrations for spreading “lies of the government” and pharmaceutical companies. There were further reports of AFP journalists in Paris being insulted, booed and spat upon by groups of protesters, as well as attempts to prevent filming which resulted in some outlets having to suspend coverage of the demonstration. Furthermore, physical attacks on journalists also took place in Annecy and Vans (Ardèche). In addition, a journalist in Nantes reported that police threw a tear gas canister at him, while his back was turned to them.

Turkish researcher threatened with deportation for anti-Israeli occupation sign

Turkish academic Selma (not her real name) was arrestedon 15th May 2021 for participation in a rally in support of the people of Palestine in the midst of an Israeli attack on Gaza and occupied East Jerusalem. Selma was led to believe that the case was closed, however, five days after the arrest she received a letter from the Paris police informing her of their considering withdrawing her residence permit, quoting articles of law which "provide for the possibility of withdrawal of the residence card if its holder constitutes a threat to public order". Selma has lived in France for ten years. Upon consulting the charge sheet, the offence recorded was “carrying a banner against the Israeli occupation”. Selma reported:

“On my sign it was written 'I am against the Israeli occupation and in solidarity with the Palestinian people', that is not anti-Semitism!”

Selma also highlighted the arrest and threat to revoke her residency as “an attack on her freedom of expression and right to demonstrate”. Her lawyer has said that the “threat of eviction is a political decision”, which Selma is considering appealing in the administrative court if the withdrawal of her residency goes ahead.