UPDATE 13 March 2019: On 12 March, the Senate approved the law. The civic opposition and the President of the Republic Emmanuel Macron have announced they will bring the law to the Constitutional Council.
UPDATE 5 February 2019: According to Amnesty France the bill was approved by the General Assembly without big changes – meaning that the most worrying elements of the law are still present, including the possibility for prefects to ban people from demonstrations and fine protesters covering their face even partially. See the comment by Amnesty France: https://amnestyfr.cdn.prismic.io/amnestyfr%2F8c60cd46-46b1-497e-b079-e399050dab45_pr%C3%A9occupations+aif+ppl_droit+de+manifester.pdf. A vote on the text is expected in the Senate on 12 March.
UPDATE 1 February 2019: On January 30, 2019, the deputies adopted the first 4 articles of the law. Three worrying provisions are still part of the text: 1) the power to prefects to ban people deemed dangerous from protests without a judge’ sentence; 2) the timeframe to provide the notification of the ban to the person is not specified making it virtually impossible for people to appeal the administrative decision; 3) concealing the face “without a legitimate reason” remains punishable. Read more from Amnesty International: https://www.amnesty.fr/liberte-d-expression/actualites/la-casse-du-droit-de-manifester.
29 January 2019 – On 29 January, the French General Assembly starts the discussion on the so-called “Loi anti-casseurs” or anti-rioter law. The bill, known as Loi B.Retailleau/E.Philippe, was originally presented at the Senate by Bruno Retailleau (LR, conservative right) in October 2018. On 7 January, during an interview, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said he would support a tightening of the rules to protect protesters from trouble-makers. A few days later, the Legislative committee of the Assembly started dissecting the Senate’s draft bill and heavily amended it, due to the possible negative impacts on the right to protest.
During his interview, PM Philippe said the government supports a “new law punishing those who do not respect the requirement to declare [protests], those who take part in unauthorised demonstrations and those who arrive at demonstrations wearing face masks”. He also suggested the creation of a database of people banned from protests and with the obligation to report to the police during announced protests. The Legislative committee removed this article in the meantime.
The law does not meet international standards and kills freedoms
Commenters said that the proposal is similar to measures to manage hooligans in the stadiums. The power to ban people from protests in case of “serious reasons to believe that his or her behaviour constitutes a threat of a particular seriousness to public order ” would be placed on the enforcement authorities instead of judicial authorities.
Ligue des droits de l’Homme (LDH), Syndicat des avocats de France (Saf), Syndicat of the Judiciary (SM), Copernicus Foundation, United Federation of Trade Unions (FSU), Union syndicale Solidaires, Confédération générale du travail (CGT) signed a letter condemning the bill. The letter states:
“Registration of demonstrators, individual prohibition of demonstration, obligation to register [at the police] are all signs of the continuation of the logic of generalised suspicion and social control with the risk of misuse procedures and arbitrariness.
The signatories denounce these restrictions on the right to demonstrate and these massive threats to the freedoms of opinion and expression of opposition and call for the withdrawal of the proposed law.”
The law also proposes to sanction people covering their faces during demonstrations up to one year in prison or with a fine of 15,000 euros.
Amnesty International France stated: “In the current context of disproportionate use of force and policing strategies, protecting one’s face, and particularly one’s eyes, from gases and projectiles is not only legitimate but often necessary. […]
The criminalisation of protesters on the sole basis of the wearing of protective equipment, which may partially mask the face, is illegal under international law. It risks endangering the health and physical safety of demonstrators and will have a strong deterrent effect on the exercise of the right to protest. It may also lead to arbitrary arrests under international law.”
Amnesty International France considers the law not to meet international standards also due to the vagueness of the original wording. They write: “Such a concept is contrary to the principle of international law of legal certainty. By not allowing citizens to know the rules that sanction their behaviour and adjust their choices accordingly to avoid being punished unfairly, it opens the way to arbitrariness.”
A security response to a political crisis
The proposal was read as a response to the ongoing Yellow vests demonstrations.
Henri Leclerc, attorney and Honorary President of the League of Human Rights said:
“The anti-rioters law is an anti-demonstration law.
This law is not a political mistake but political nonsense. I cannot understand how this government took up this proposal from the right, even though it had distanced itself from it. We have here a law of opportunity; nothing is worse than the laws of opportunity. It is a bit of an admission of weakness.
Making an appropriate law against the freedom to demonstrate is absurd.
Against the rebellious violence, violent repression does not solve the problem.
The occasional law is a propaganda law, which consists of saying: “Look, we are doing something”. And in fact, it does not change anything.”
Featured image: GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT / AFP