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The blind spots of French democracy

Protestors demonstrate against the Global Security bill in Paris - Credit: Getty Images

The country might consider itself the cradle of liberty, but, says CONSTANCE KAMPFNER, a controversial proposed ‘security’ law has emphasised the uneasy relationship between the state and its citizens.

A policeman is kneeling on a man’s neck. He tries to tell the officer that he can’t breathe while passersby look on, horrified. They shudder. And then they keep walking.

The death of George Floyd was a tragedy. But it was also one which opened the world’s eyes – to racism, cruelty and police brutality. What would it have been without a smartphone?

That question is exercising journalists, activists and many others in France. Its importance speaks to a growing discomfort about the powers of the state that president Emmanuel Macron has been keen to bolster during the pandemic.

A Global Security Law, introduced by Macron’s En Marche government promises to clamp down on the filming of police officers. At the same time it ushers in more surveillance of citizens, allowing police to use facial recognition equipped drones and increasing access to CCTV footage for authorities.

The law is intended, says Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, to “protect those who protect us” from online harassment and violence. Anyone disseminating footage of an officer “with the aim or harming their physical or psychological integrity” could face up to a year in prison and a 45,000 euro fine.

Critics point out that France already has strong legislation to prevent intrusions into private life and online harassment. Instead, they say the new measures undermine free speech and risk creating an atmosphere in which the police – already powerful – would be able to act with more impunity than ever.

Condemnation has poured in from influential groups at home and abroad, including even the UN Human Rights

Council who have pointed out the bill’s “innumerable problems” and called upon French politicians not to support it. Amnesty International has described it as “dangerous for fundamental freedoms”. As debates rage in the French press, across the nation thousands have taken to the streets.

The heat has been too much for Macron’s party to handle. On Monday, after another weekend of protests, which drew in more than 133,000 people across the country, the president declared that Article 24, the ban on filming police, would be rewritten. He was reportedly furious with ministers that he had been forced to intervene.

Macron has made it clear that he doesn’t appreciate Franco-American comparisons, but the George Floyd example is no ‘anglicisme’. In January in Paris, Cédric Chouviat turned blue and died after officers pinned him to the floor while the 42-year-old delivery driver of Algerian descent told them “I’m suffocating” seven times. More than a dozen people recorded the event and their video evidence was key to three officers being charged with manslaughter.

Even in the last fortnight, Macron has admitted that footage of four policemen beating a black music producer Michel Zecler in his own studio, is “shameful”. Days before, images emerged of police thuggishly breaking up a refugee camp in central Paris and spraying journalists with tear gas.

En Marche says the re-written law will eliminate any “misunderstandings and doubts”, but the battle to protect the right to film the police predates the drafting of Article 24. In a letter published in Le Monde, many of the France’s biggest media outlets argued that police officers already often oppose “perfectly legal” filming. The new law would only leave them feeling “more justified” to limit both journalists’ and citizens’ right to keep visual records of police activity.

The investigative journalist Paul Moreira believes the law would formalise “the game of cat and mouse which already exists between journalists and the police”. The documentary maker remembers one interaction he had with the riot police during the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests: “I was filming an exchange between an officer and a protester when I received three blows from the boss’s baton. I was at a distance, in the corner, but apparently I was ‘blocking’ him,” he told me.

Alongside the global security bill comes a new “national law enforcement scheme” which was voted in by the National Assembly in September. This too has drawn the ire of journalists who will be forced to disperse like everyone else when police give an order. At least two reporters were taken into custody under the legislation during recent demonstrations.

Moreira sees this as even more dangerous: “The most problematic moments in a protest always come after the order to disperse”, he says. Undocumented, these scenes risk becoming “a blind spot for democracy”.

Taken together, the legislation emphasises the lengths to which Macron will go to keep the police and security forces onside. More than any president since perhaps de Gaulle, he has leaned on the police, first to control the gilets jaunes and then to enforce two strict national lockdowns.

Attempts to regulate the police have been stopped in their tracks. After Chouviat’s death, public outcry led the then interior minister Christophe Castaner to announce a ban on the use of chokeholds during arrests, a statement he quickly retracted following police protests. The government has repeatedly dismissed the very notion of systemic police violence in the country.

These measures have been interpreted as proof of Macron’s tilt to the right, but they also speak to a different tension at the heart of modern France. Along with Spain, it has led the charge to protect whistleblowers in Europe, with a 2016 law that mandates all large corporations to establish a hotline which employees can use to call out wrongdoing without fear of repercussions.

Yet Macron pushed legislation to protect “corporate secrets” through parliament in 2018. The result, transparency activists argue, is that protections for those who speak out have been watered down – and whistleblowing and press freedom have been weakened as a result. Jacques Toubon, France’s Ombudsman, is “struck by the fragility of whistleblowers” in France. “Some never recover,” he says.

Meanwhile, freedom of information rights are underdeveloped in France compared to the UK and US. According to a pan-European review of information laws by researchers from the universities of Brussels and Essex, the list of documents excluded from the scope of French information laws and “the available grounds for rejecting a request… have only grown over the years”. The authors of the study conclude that “this leads one to wonder how embedded transparency really is in the administrative culture of France”.

The structure of French politics already gives presidents wide-ranging powers and, like many governments, Macron could be seen as exploiting the pandemic to bolster his authority.

Not that the UK could be seen as a good example. Whether it’s the dwindling number of responses to Freedom of Information requests, Priti Patel’s mission to clamp down on protesters’ rights or large contracts being handed out to Boris Johnson’s ‘chumocracy’, Britain’s recent record on transparency has sharply declined.

Everywhere governments are introducing new technologies to monitor citizens, while many are seeking to restrict that same right of citizens to monitor the state. But citizen journalism is proliferating and is at its most impactful when combined with the resources of established media organisations. An example of this is the work of the investigative outfits Bellingcat and Forensic Architecture, who are amassing thousands of videos from social media to map incidents of police violence during the Black Lives Matter protests in a database that they hope will support any future legal action. Against the excesses of the state, a smartphone is a small weapon – but a powerful one.

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