FRANCE: After riots spread across the country, international actors express concerns over police violence in France

Article written for the Civic Space Watch by ECF members on 10/08/2023.

Since the start of 2023, civil society organisations, trade unions, and activists have mobilised against pension reforms and for various environmental causes. These protests have been met with police using disproportionate levels of violence against protesters, detaining participants, harassing activists and journalists documenting the scenes (see UN General comment on the right of peaceful assembly for international standards which states “use of force must comply with the fundamental principles of legality, necessity, proportionality, precaution and non-discrimination”).

French CSOs and international institutions, such as the United Nations Human Rights Council, have condemned the disproportionate police violence and restrictions on the freedom of assembly and expression of protesters. In the context of its Universal Periodic review, it was recommended that France “take measures to, in a transparent manner, address allegations regarding excessive use of force by police and gendarmerie against protestors during demonstrations”.

On June 27, 17-year-old, Nahel Merzouk, who is of North-African descent, was fatally shot by a policeman in his car after being stopped by two officers. This happened after 13 deaths were recorded in 2022 following police road checks, all of which were victims of African and Arab origin.

Following this, there were calls for peaceful mourning marches for Nahel. However, violence, organised by mostly young people, soon spread across major French cities. The police intervened indiscriminately with the use of excessive force in many circumstances. 

The anger expressed by the teenagers reignited several important debates related to the police’s treatment of minorities in marginalised communities, social inequalities affecting disintegrated families, and the lack of opportunities for entering a decent life.  

The excessive and untargeted use of violence by police has contributed to a deepened divide in society. A statement made by two leading police trade unions, claiming to be at war with the youngsters, in addition to the absence of a reaction from the government to such claims is more than worrying, showing a weakening of the democratic functioning of institutions in France. 

Here is some data in relation to the events that proceeded:

  • For four nights there had been a very significant number of street violences in many large and medium size cities, with town halls, schools, police stations, public transports, libraries, and cars set on fire. No demands had been attached to these actions, which can be interpreted as a violence to show distress and anger, not to support claims. 
  • From the second night, the Minister of Interior mobilised 45,000 police officers across the country. Between June 27th to July 4th, more than 3,000 people were arrested, with the average age of arrestees being seventeen years old. Additionally, children as young as twelve years old have been detained by the police. About 1,000 people were charged with prison sentences.
  • Sources report that on July 2nd, riots had eased significantly.

As evidence emerged that rioters were using Snapchat, Twitter, and TikTok to organise and encourage riots in different cities across France, Emmanuel Macron suggested “we may have to regulate or cut off” social networks when “things get out of control”. Later, the President also suggested that the problem is with the parents, as he “appealed to the responsibility of mothers and fathers” urging them “to keep [young people] at home”. “It’s not the government that raises children,” Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti added.

International actors and CSOs react

Whilst protests began in Nanterre and spread to major cities, including Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, Strasbourg, Lille, and Marseille, the riots sparked similar violence in neighbouring countries.

In Lausanne, Switzerland, 100 people rioted, the majority of which were teenagers, and seven people were detained.

In Belgium, approximately 135 people were arrested in Brussels and 30 in Liège in response to the police shooting in France.

The riots have also been used to disseminate anti-migrant rhetoric by other European countries. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki tweeted a video of the riots juxtaposed with peaceful images in Poland with the caption “these are the consequences of the policies of uncontrolled migration which we are being forced to adopt”. Moreover, Morawiecki used the events in France as an opportunity to justify Poland’s rejection of the EU’s new migration and asylum pact which was endorsed by a majority of member countries in June.

Italian Undersecretary for the Interior and politician from the right-wing Lega Nord party, Nicola Molteni, has also stated that the riots in France “were a certification of the failure of uncontrolled migration and a warning for the rest of Europe.”

Other international political actors have expressed their opinion. While condemning the riots, they mentioned the police violence. 

In an interview, following the presentation of the European Commission’s annual Rule of Law report, European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders expressed his concerns for the “very high level of violence” in France and advocated for a “reflection” on the organisation of policing. It is not surprising then that Laurence Boone, the Secretary of State for Europe and Foreign Affairs, has criticised Reynders’ comments on France as “the maintenance of order is not part of European prerogatives”.

The disproportionate levels of police violence in France have already been a subject of concern with United Nations experts in meetings this year due to the “excessive use of force during protests in France earlier this year over pension reform and mega-basin projects.” 

Volker Türk, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, continues to express concerns about the French police, more specifically the need to “seriously tackle the deep problems of racism and racial discrimination among the forces of the order”.

The European Network Against Racism (ENAR) has called on the French government to “take immediate action to address the concerns raised by civil society organisations and human rights groups regarding impunity and racialised policing in France.” 

French NGOs are also speaking out to raise awareness in the context of a deteriorating context for public debates. The Ligue des Droits de l’Homme (LDH) issued a statement calling out the use of weapons by the police and their request for the repeal of Article L.435-1 of 2017 of the Internal Security Code law, which “facilitates the recourse to the use of arms, particularly in the event of refusal to comply”

More than 120 CSOs, trade unions, collectives and activists called for a march in France and its overseas territories to demand the repeal of the 2017 law, in addition to requesting the creation of a service dedicated to combatting racism and discrimination affecting young people, supporting individual freedoms, and an in-depth reform of the police, its intervention methods and its weapon uses. The appeal can be read on Amnesty International France and Ligue des droits de l’Homme websites.

Marches were called on July 8th and July 15th, but several were banned by the Minister of Interior’s local representatives. Nevertheless, many could take place, but with lower participation due to the fear of demonstrating in such conditions.

Further concerns about the rule of law, police, and AI surveillance

After the riots, the Marseille prosecutor’s office opened a judicial investigation for “fatal blows with use or threat of a weapon” following the death of Mohammed, 27. Three police officers were charged August 10th for the death of Mohammed.

Furthermore, another investigation has been opened following suspicions of police violence in Marseille following an incident in which a 21-year-old man was severely injured after being beaten with “batons and flash-ball shots”.

Eight police officers were placed in custody for this investigation for “voluntary violence resulting in an ITT (Incapacité totale de travail- total incapacity for work) greater than eight days” due to inflicted injuries. According to the Marseille prosecutor’s office, this was “aggravated by three circumstances” since the officers “committed in assembly, with use or threat of a weapon and by a person holding public authority in the exercise of his duties”.

On July 20th, four police officers of the BAC (Anti-Crime Brigade) were indicted. Since then, three have been released under judicial supervision whilst the fourth has remained in custody, which has caused controversy among the French police and has led to many putting themselves on reduced activity or sick leave to contest the detention of these officers.

In a speech, Darmanin said that “police officers can not be the only people for whom the presumption of innocence does not count” and assured understanding the “emotions and anger” of policemen supporting the officers in custody. 

In a press release, the National Conference of First Presidents of Courts of Appeal (CNPP) and the National Conference of Prosecutors General (CNPG) expressed their concern about the “degradation of the rule of law” in France following Darmanin’s comments. 

They stated that “once again, the Minister of the Interior’s questioning of the application of criminal law by magistrates constitutes a direct criticism of judicial decisions and the professional ethics of judges”. Additionally, they fear ”that a form of radicalization of positions will take hold among police officers, facilitated by the public attacks by their highest authorities on the principles of separation of powers and judicial independence”.

Another area of concern is the justice reform bill which was passed in France on July 5th, which allows law enforcement agencies the power to “surveil cameras, microphones, and geolocation on personal phones and ­other citizen-owned devices”.

CSOs and digital rights groups have reacted to this bill. La Quadrature du Net claimed that the provisions “raise serious concerns over infringements of fundamental liberties”.

ENAR expressed their “grave concerns over privacy violations, civil liberties, and the abuse of authority under the guise of national security”. Moreover, they questioned how “the proportionality and efficacy of such measures in combating crime and police brutality”, worrying that “in reality, the extended surveillance capacity will only empower the vicious self-perpetuating cycle of police brutality and profiling that targets racialised communities and yields tragic results. It will continue to disproportionately profile and register the faces of those who, like the 17-year-old Nahel M., murdered in July by the French police, are systematically “Othered.”