Why don’t French activists accept the Macron government’s rationale for a new law limiting the public’s right to share images of police brutality? Maybe because they’ve read it.
By Meerabelle Jesuthasan | THE NATION
In November 2020, the French learned that their government was about to pass a law that could punish anyone sharing images or recordings of police officers with up to a year in prison and 45,000 euros in fines.
Although the proposed law is aimed only at sharing images of the police with the intention of “harming their physical or psychological integrity,” this vague fine print did little to calm public outrage.
Last summer, as uprisings in defense of Black lives surged across the Atlantic, France had its own mass protests in support of victims of police violence, namely Adama Traoré, whose tragic death was not filmed. The French police have killed and brutalized many others, from Black and brown people in quartiers populaires to participants in the Gilets Jaunes movement. Some of these incidents were recorded in viral videos, which, many argue, is often the only mechanism that can save lives—by letting police know there will be a record of their behavior or, failing that, to provide grounds for legal retribution.
Article 24, which would criminalize the public sharing of such videos, is part of a larger piece of legislation called the Global Security Law. Macron’s party has since promised to rewrite it, but French activists are not convinced, especially since this article is far from the only section that is causing concern. The whole bill represents a consolidation of police power at all levels, handing unprecedented legitimacy to police surveillance and endangering many of the freedoms supposedly guaranteed by the republic, from individual privacy to freedom of the press. While the law has not yet passed in the French Senate, the violent police response to continuous nationwide protests gives a chilling indication of what its adoption would represent.
“It’s a law by the police, for the police,” Bastien Le Querrec, from the digital rights group La Quadrature du Net, told The Nation. He means this literally: The deputy who co-authored the law, Jean-Michel Fauvergue, is the former head of an elite tactical police unit. Besides him, many prominent figures in Macron’s party remain staunchly pro-police, even after last summer’s protests.
The violence of French law enforcement goes back a long way: On October 17, 1961, police in Paris killed more than a hundred Algerian protesters by shooting them and throwing their bodies into the Seine. But recent public frustration has also been brought to a boil by a government that apparently cannot even pay lip service to the seriousness of police brutality. Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, who oversees the national police, infamously responded to questions about the problem with a chilling misquote of sociologist Max Weber: “The police use violence, certainly, but a legitimate violence. It’s as old as Max Weber!” (The actual quote from “Politics as a Vocation” defines the state as a “human community that [successfully] claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”)
When a Macron deputy introduced the Global Security Law in the lower house of Parliament in November, protests erupted across the country. A broad coalition of groups ranging from journalism unions to climate action organizations coordinated what would turn into continuous protests, dotted across the entire country. Brutal images and stories emerged from these: police dragging and beating up protesters, yelling and charging at journalists, and deploying tear gas. That same November, policemen were caught on video assaulting a Black music producer—which, to some, only seemed to reinforce the argument against article 24.
On the 24th of November, Macron’s La République en Marche! (LRM), undeterred, passed the law in the lower chamber, the National Assembly, where it is the majority party. But a few days later, the parliamentary leader of LRM announced that the controversial article 24 would be totally rewritten once the entire law had passed in the Senate, where it was scheduled for discussion in the coming months.
The parliamentary leader said the government would work to “remove these doubts” expressed through protest. But to Le Querrec, the promise to rewrite the text amounts to “a middle finger from the presidential majority to the rule of law.” For one thing, any rewriting can now only occur in the Senate, where the conservative Republican party is in the majority. Some fear that even if the offending article is removed from the Global Security bill, it will simply reappear later in a different proposed law. “It’s a smokescreen,” said Le Querrec. “But far beyond this article 24, the entire proposed law that is problematic.”
Article 25, for example, would allow officers to carry weapons while off duty, even in public areas. Other sections legitimize the use of surveillance methods like drone cameras that, until recently, were in a legal gray zone.
The law has also mobilized journalists, who are worried about how it would restrict their ability to report on the police. “This is really a fight on audiovisual narratives: Who is allowed to use images to describe reality?” said Pablo Aiquel, an official in the journalists’ union SNJ-CGT, who adds that this issue doesn’t concern journalists alone: “The right to inform is the right of every citizen.”
Aiquel and Le Querrec both said that the proposed bill is one in an onslaught of government initiatives to increase surveillance and restrict social movements. Recently, three decrees extended the permitted police surveillance of activists and their communities (including minor children). Another proposed law, the law on separatism, expands the grounds for arresting individuals or dissolving grassroots organizations based on their social media posts. Journalists worry that this would infringe on the country’s 1881 law guaranteeing freedom of press and expression. While the justice minister says the 1881 guarantees would not be affected, he also commented that some people “do not deserve” the law’s protection.
Aiquel notes that the state is trying to formalize the distinction between who is and isn’t a journalist—and therefore who can and cannot observe the police. This effort predates the Global Security Law: During the 2018–19 Gilets Jaunes protests for example, many took on a journalistic role by documenting what was happening on the ground on social media. When Darmanin’s interior ministry released regulations for the “national maintenance of order” in 2020, these stated that journalists could wear protective equipment to protests, but only if they had presented official accreditation to the police beforehand.
“The purpose of a press card isn’t to go cover protests in the street,” said Aiquel. “In a democracy, no one can be banned from attending a protest.” The Stop Loi Sécurité Globale coalition is therefore also asking for the repeal of Darmanin’s 2020 regulations.
“Practically every month, there is a new problematic legal measure,” said Le Querrec. “It’s really a very difficult period, it’s complicated to fight everywhere, all the time, against every decree. We see clearly that our opponents are using a strategy of exhaustion.”
He agreed that attendance of protests against the Global Security Law has decreased, but attributed this decline to brutal repression rather than general resignation (in one December protest, nearly 150 were arrested in Paris alone). “We can’t blame people at all for being less active,” he said. “We are in a very anxiety-inducing context, one that will continue in the long term.”