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Explained: What is the controversy about France’s new security law?

The weekly demonstrations, seen as a setback for President Emmanuel Macron, who seeks reelection in early 2022, have been marked by violence, with protesters smashing shop windows and setting alight vehicles.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: December 7, 2020 8:07:01 pm
france protests, paris protests emmanuel macron, france president emmanuel macron, paris protest explained, latest newsA man holds a poster reading "Living yes, surviving no" during a demonstration in Paris. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

For the second weekend in a row, Paris has been rocked by street protests after the government introduced a controversial security bill in parliament that seeks to provide greater powers and protections for police officers.

The weekly demonstrations, seen as a setback for President Emmanuel Macron, who seeks reelection in early 2022, have been marked by violence, with protesters smashing shop windows and setting alight vehicles. Last Saturday (November 28), over 46,000 people gathered in the capital city to protest against the controversial legislation.

The proposed law, being pushed by President Emmanuel Macron, is being opposed by civil rights liberties groups, journalists and migrant activists.

What does the proposed law seek to do?

Three articles of the bill, which have caused controversy, concern enabling the police to organise ground and air mass surveillance, while at the same time restricting the filming of police officers.

Articles 21 and 22 of the proposed “global security” law allow the police and the gendarmes (paramilitary forces) to use body cameras and drones to film citizens, and allow the recorded footage to be livestreamed to the command post. 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram

Article 24 penalises publishing “the image of the face or any other element of identification” of a police or paramilitary official who is acting in “a police operation”, if the dissemination is done with “the intent of harming their physical or mental integrity”. Punishment for the crime will be imprisonment for up to 1 year, with a maximum fine of 45,000 euros.

What are the opponents of the new law saying?

Those opposed to the new law have decried what they describe as the hardening of police response to protests in recent years, especially after the Yellow Vest demonstrations of 2018. Activists of the same movement also played a prominent role in Saturday’s protest, reports said.

Journalists and human rights groups have expressed concern that Article 24 would make it harder to cover public events and record instances of police violence, thus making it more difficult to hold officers accountable. Its wording has also been criticised as being open-ended, and reporters have worried how the courts would interpret the term “intent of harming”.

Critics have highlighted two instances of police excesses within one week at the end of November that grabbed national attention, which they argue would have been left unreported had the proposed law been in place.

The first occurred on November 23, when the French police were clearing a temporary migrant camp in central Paris. Video footage showed officers using riot shields to shove people before using tear gas, and some were seen chasing migrants through side streets. Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo called the incident “unacceptable” and accused the police of employing a “brutal and disproportionate use of force”. Gérald Darmanin, France’s usually tough-speaking interior minister, also called the videos “shocking”.

Another video, which surfaced on November 26, showed police officers beating a Black man behind closed doors for several minutes, prompting Macron to say that images from the video “shame us”.

Civil liberties groups and left-wing parties have called the bill authoritarian and unnecessary, insisting that existing laws are sufficient to protect police officers.

What have the bill’s supporters said?

The Macron government has insisted that it does not intend to target press freedoms, and that the new law is aimed at protecting police officers and their families from online trolling and harassment when off duty.

Apart from Macron’s centrist La République en Marche (LaRem) party, the bill has received support from the country’s conservative parties, allowing it to be easily passed on November 24 in the National Assembly, France’s lower house of parliament. In January, the French Senate–dominated by conservatives– would vote on the bill.

Don’t miss from Explained | France’s complex relationship with Islam, and Macron’s recent remarks

Notably, analysts have pointed to a rightward shift of the French electorate, especially in the aftermath of a spate of recent terror attacks, including the October beheading of schoolteacher Samuel Paty, and the Nice stabbing attack. As per a Bloomberg report, a government-commissioned survey found that 58 per cent of respondents backed the new security law.

Observers also say that Macron, who describes his politics as “neither right nor left”, and who was with the Socialist Party until 2009, has been increasingly trying to appeal to right-wing voters, especially before the Presidential election of early 2022.

Another controversial legal measure, the so-called “anti-separatism” bill that Macron is proposing, has been seen as a part of this trend. The bill, which aims to crack down on Islamic radicalism, is to be introduced in Parliament in December, and envisages a range of measures, including school education reforms to ensure Muslim children do not drop out, stricter controls on mosques and preachers, and has caused concern among Muslims in France.

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