Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité – Et Confidentialité? New Wave Of French Protests Over Draft Security Bill

Protesters have again clashed with police in Paris, as nearly one hundred rallies gather nationwide to protest a controversial new draft security law.

Despite President Emmanuel Macron’s ruling L.R.E.M. (La République en Marche) Movement announcing that parts of the law would be rewritten after backlash on December 1st, the protests, which began on November 21st, have continued (largely peacefully) into December. The violent clashes have been blamed on “crazy people,” with Parisian police claiming roughly 500 rioters had “infiltrated” the otherwise peaceful protest. In the wake of the bouts of violence on December 5th, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said that at least 60 people have been detained in relation to the unrest.

The protests themselves are in response to a new draft security law, one part of which – Article 24 – would see individuals face up to €40,000 or a year’s prison sentence if they publish pictures or videos of on-duty police officers “with the aim of harming their physical or psychological integrity.” While advocates of Article 24 argue that it will protect police from harassment, many critics feel that both the media and the public should have an unimpeded right to record police action, particularly in the wake of alleged racism by French police. Macron acknowledged this, telling Brut, a youth news portal site, that “there are police who are violent… they need to be punished.”

The backlash has not been restricted to journalists and members of the public either. French police, historically reluctant to engage in large-scale institutional reform, are protesting Macron’s admittance of racial profiling by law enforcement agencies. The power of the French police rests on their large unions and their influence within the government; each “victory” over protesters, such as the one they celebrated over last year’s gilets jaunes (Yellow Vests), hikes up their political capital. It seems unlikely that the police would willingly relinquish this influence in favour of institutional reforms.

While Macron’s tentative admission is a positive step toward ensuring that police are held responsible for their actions, it does nothing to address the deeper, institutionalized racism within the French police force. The recent beating of black music producer Michel Zecler at his Paris studio by three white policemen, which has become emblematic for those opposing Article 24, is simply the latest example of an institutional legacy which has never been fully confronted. More needs to be done to address these structural issues – removing the public’s and media organizations’ ability to effectively scrutinize the police is a step in the wrong direction.

There is a real case to enhance French police’s protection from harassment – there have been several high-profile targeted attacks on French police in recent years. However, Article 24’s scope goes far beyond what may be considered necessary. In its current form, the article constitutes a clear infringement of freedom of expression; while the intentions behind it would appear to be benevolent, it has been clearly mishandled. Article 24 is a superficial means of patching over other deeper issues within French policing. The French government must completely rewrite the proposed security law, else the very notion of French liberté be undermined.

Macron is walking a fine line between the demands of old institutional powers and the rising cachet of post-B.L.M. civil liberties campaigns. While reforms are unlikely to happen quickly, it remains imperative that the core constitutional values of liberté, égalité, and fraternité are not sacrificed at the altar of union politics.

Henry Whitelaw