Amidst the chaos of France’s second Covid-19 lockdown, the population has not given up its strong belief in freedom of speech. If you’ve been following the news, you will have seen that in recent weeks protests have broken out across Paris and other French cities. But what, specifically, are they opposing, and how have the protests developed? How have the authorities responded, and what can we expect to see in the upcoming weeks?
What is Article 24, and why is it so controversial?
In an attempt to protect the French police force, the new amendment to this article, issued by Macron’s government on 24thNovember 2020, stipulates that it will be illegal to film or photograph any police offer with ‘the aim of damaging their physical or psychological integrity.’ Yet in essence, this act would prevent the public from using their own means to document police actions or, more significantly, acts of police brutality. The offence will carry a prison sentence of up to a year, and a maximum fine of €45,000.
Not only would this new bill reduce police accountability, since acts of violence on their part will not be recorded, but it also signifies a huge restriction on the freedom of the press. Journalists, reporters and the general public could see their rights curtailed, as critics of the bill are concerned as to how courts will judge whether images have been taken with ‘intent’ to harm the police.
What has the response been?
Many NGOs, including Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International France, have spoken out against the bill, encouraging the public to attend protests. Even the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ office and France’s human rights ombudsman have expressed concern regarding the article, suggesting it poses a threat to fundamental human rights.
Set against the context of past brutal police actions caught on camera in France, including the harsh dismantling of migrant tents in Paris’ Place de la Republique on 23rd November, the public are particularly conscious of the need to freely document the police in order to hold them accountable.
How have the protests developed?
In the hope of prompting the government to abandon or rewrite this new bill, many French citizens have taken to the streets to express their opposition. Key areas in the French capital, near Trocadero and Bastille, have seen many protesters, and people in cities including Lyon, Bordeaux and Marseille have followed suit. Tens of thousands of students, journalists and members of the public have taken part in these protests across the country. Protestors have been documented throwing smoke bombs and fire crackers. The police have responded with tear gas and arrests – on the first day of protests alone, 95 citizens were detained across France. According to Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, 67 police officers were also injured, 48 of them in Paris.
On Monday 30th November, the government agreed to try to rewrite the bill in order to appease the population, yet protests persisted well into December, with continued calls for the bill to be abandoned completely. The final version has not been released to the public, and we do not yet know the extent of the rewrite. Until this matter is resolved, we shall have to continue to watch the protest movement and scrutinise the actions of the French government.
Image: Jeanne Menjoulet via Flickr