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FRANCE: Association push back as Separatism law comes into force; CSO tackling Islamophobia dissolved

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European Civic Forum update to CIVICUS Monitor, published on 21/04/2022

Introduction

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, France has been living under a “transitional” state of health emergency (Etat d’urgence sanitaire – EUS), with additional powers given to the executive. In October 2021, the possibility of maintaining this EUS was extended until July 2022, beyond the presidential elections taking place in April 2022. This means that parliamentary oversight on the application of the state of emergency would be extremely weak, resulting in a lasting weakening of the rule of law in France. The COVID-19 sanitary pass has been extended andis mandatory to access major events, restaurants, cinemas and other social venues until July 2022. Elements of public opinion in France consider this as an attack on individual freedom and an indirect way to make vaccination almost compulsory. 

Association

Civil society continues to push back as Separatism law enters into force

On 1st January 2022, the so-called Separatism law came into force after the Constitutional Council validated most of the provisions contained in the draft bill, despite major concerns raised by a broad coalition of civil society organisations (see previous updates). In March 2022, 25 CSOs submitted an appeal to the Council of State against the decree implementing the law.

Law No. 2021-1109 of 24th August 2021 aimed at fighting “separatism” in France and confirming respect for the principles of the Republic by obliging associations and foundations to sign a “Republican commitment contract” when they wish to obtain State approval, a public subsidy or welcome a young person in civic service. Under the terms of this contract, CSOs undertake to respect the principles of freedom, equality and fraternity, not to call into question the secular nature of the Republic and to refrain from any action that undermines the “public order”.

CSOs’ main concern, as the opinion of the High Council for Associative Life (Haut Conseil à la Vie Associative – HCVA) specified, is that “the contract of Republican commitment tends to entrust the administration with a very wide power of interpretation and sanction” and this “without clear, prior and compulsory information on the means of appeal likely to be exercised by the associations and foundations in question”. The Separatism law has been unanimously criticised so far: from the NGO Le Mouvement Associatif and the HCVA, to the Expert Council on NGO Law of the Conference of INGOs of the Council of Europe, the French Consultative Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH) and the French Defender of Human Rights (Défenseur des droits).

In a press release published at the beginning of January 2022, Le Mouvement Associatif expressed its disagreement with the republican commitment contract and is especially concerned about the risks involved for freedom of associative action which “is essential to our democracy and contributes to bringing to life the principles of the Republic, including its dimension of alert, questioning and contestation.”

Beyond the arbitrary sanctions with which associations are likely to be confronted, Le Mouvement Associatif is also concerned about the provision (introduced by the January 2022 decree putting into force the Separatism law and which does not appear in the law itself) making association leaders responsible for the proper application of the republican commitment contract by volunteers, employees and members of the organisation.

“This provision places a completely disproportionate responsibility, the conditions of implementation of which remain very uncertain, on the shoulders of volunteer leaders, at the risk of discouraging more than one”, said Le Mouvement Associatif in its press release. (translated from French).

Le Mouvement Associatif pledged to remain mobilised in the upcoming months “to support the associations and report on the difficulties encountered in the application of this system.” A wider movement, including Le Mouvement Associatif and the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme (LDH) has been building a case against the republican commitment contract to take to courts, including the European Court for Human Rights (ECHR).

The L.A. Coalition (Coalition Libertés Associatives, a coalition supported by a consortium of European foundations in the framework of the Civitates project) recently published an article explaining how to legally challenge an abuse in the application of the Separatism law and be able to get assistance to file appeals. In September 2021, the L.A. Coalition had already announced that the “battle was not over” by establishing a monitoring unit on the Separatism law within its Observatoire des libertés associatives (Observatory of associative freedoms).

Dissolution of Muslim rights defender CSO

Following accusations by the Minister of Interior of “provocation to acts of terrorism” in reaction to the murder of Samuel Paty (a teacher who was killed after showing students cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed), the Collective against Islamophobia in France (Collectif Contre l’Islamophobie en France – CCIF), an association whose purpose was to fight by legal means discrimination against Muslim people was dissolved by a decree on 2nd December 2020.

At the end of September 2021, the Council of State approved the dissolution. As reported by the Ligue des droits de l’Homme (LDH), the ruling was based on the grounds that by fighting against anti-Muslim discrimination and hatred the CCIF was itself guilty of discrimination and hatred. In the Council of State’s view, “criticising without nuance” public policies or laws that are considered discriminatory means pushing victims of alleged discrimination down the slope of “radicalisation” and invites them “to evade the laws of the Republic”. According to the LDH:

“To reach this conclusion, the Council of State has totally misused a text originally designed to combat the spread of violent, racist and inegalitarian ideologies, and has thus transformed it into a lethal weapon that can be used against any association defending rights and freedoms.”

“The decision is also worrying in that it amounts to admitting that an association is responsible not only for its own actions and public positions, but also for those of its former leaders – including when they express themselves in a personal capacity – and those of its members, former members and even people who comment on its online publications. The associations are thus ordered, on pain of dissolution without prior notice, to exercise constant vigilance over the comments or actions of their members – comments or actions which, in this case, the public prosecutor never considered appropriate to pursue.”

Additionally, the administrative dissolution of the Coordination against racism and Islamophobia (Coordination contre le racisme et l’islamophobie – CRI) was pronounced by a decree of 20th October 2021 on a similar basis.

The dissolutions of CSOs defending Muslim rights are taking place in a growing climate of Islamophobia and xenophobia within the French political and media landscape. An unprecedented investigation published on 1st February 2022 by the Observatoire des Libertés Associatives shows how the excesses of the fight against Islamism has changed from anti-terrorism to political and financial hindrance against associations in which Muslim people participate and has become “a witch hunt” that risks proving to be counter-productive and draconian.

These unfounded attacks against these associations are part of an ideologically motivated administrative police, a witch hunt which should offend all those attached to the rule of law and freedom of association.”

Far-right website publishes lists of hundreds of ‘Islamo-leftists’ & CSOs helping migrants

Furthermore, as reported by journalist Taha Bouhafs in September 2021, the French far-right website Fdesouche created and published a list of hundreds of so called ‘Islamo-leftists’. The website is linked to Génération Identitaire, a violent far-right group that was dissolved by the French government in March 2021 and that keeps a “press review” of the themes of interest to the far-right (immigration, Islam, etc.).

The Excel file included about 350 journalists, lawyers, imams, elected officials and politicians from all sides, who were registered with the position they hold in their organisation and categorised on an ethnic and political basis. It appeared and was downloadable on the Fdesouche website, but was eventually deleted on 17th September 2021. A second list with almost 800 initiatives and associations that help migrants throughout France, recording many sensitive details like names, addresses, contacts, description of activities, was also published. Over 90 people including Bouhafs and other involved public figures, activists and associations filed a complaint against the far-right website.

Growing criminalisation of human rights & environmental rights defenders

There is a growing climate of repression against human rights and environment defenders in France and the law of 8th October 2021 has expanded the legal arsenal that can be used against climate activism. Article 10 of the law aims to strengthen the criminalisation of civil disobedience by creating a new offence of “trespassing on airport runways”, punishable by six months’ imprisonment and a fine of 7,500 EUR (see previous update).

Earlier, on 13th December 2019, a surveillance system for environmental activists was set up with the Déméter cell, an agreement on the fight against ‘agribashing’ signed between the Ministry of Interior, the gendarmerie and the two main agricultural unions, FNSEA and the Young Farmers. The creation of this cell aimed to criminalise expression of opinion, which is in contradiction with the French Republic’s fundamental principle of freedom of opinion. On1st February 2022, the Paris Administrative Court ruled that the ideological missions of this intelligence unit had no legal basis and consequently ordered the government to put an end to it within two months, subject to a fine of 10,000 EUR per day of delay. As reported by environment defender NGO Pollinis, the government decided to appeal the court ruling and “to force its way in to defend, whatever the cost, the illegal ideological intimidation and surveillance missions that Déméter employs to stifle agribusiness protest – at great public expense”.

As a result, associations Pollinis and Générations Futures are preparing to fight back via the courts, alongside environmental lawyer Corinne Lepage, and invited citizens to sign an open letter to the government demanding the immediate dismissal of Déméter and the guarantee of the inalienable right of citizens to protect theenvironment and biodiversity.

CSOs achieved a milestone for climate justice

Despite the hostile context for climate activism, on 14th October 2021, the Paris Administrative Court ruled in favour of the so-called “Case of the Century” (“Affaire du Siècle”), with the French State being ordered to repair, before 31st December 2022, the environmental damage caused by the emission of too many Greenhouse Gases (GHG) between 2015 and 2018.

The case began in December 2018, when Notre Affaire à Tous, Fondation Nicolas Hulot, Greenpeace France and Oxfam France sent a preliminary indemnity request to the French government. An online petition was then launched, passing two million signatures in less than three weeks. On 3rd February 2021,the Paris Administrative Court recognised the State’s guilt for climate inaction and the existence of ecological damage. This final ruling came after the hearing that took place on 30th September 2021, when the public rapporteur proposed that the judges enjoin the State to take all necessary measures to prevent further climate aggravation, on the basis of briefs provided by the applicant CSOs and the government.

New bill poses a threat of surveillance

On 19th October 2021, the French Senate adopted with modifications the first reading of the bill on criminal responsibility and internal security, which deals with the use of surveillance drones by law enforcement agencies. The bill had already passed the scrutiny of the National Assembly on 23rd September 2021, on its first reading.The bill has been criticised as it contains some measures which had already appeared in the bill on global security (see previous update), which had been rejected by the Constitutional Council as the provisions on drone surveillance included in the Global Security law failed to balance the right to privacy.

The Ligue des Droits de l’Homme (LDH) called out the security bill as a means of creating a state of surveillance. 

Peaceful Assembly

Mistreatment of exiles at the French-British border led to massive CSO mobilisation

Since mid-October 2021, the situation concerning exiles in Calais and the coastal region of northern France has been the focus of public, associative, political and media attention. The balance of power between the government and CSOs and citizens defending the rights of exiles remains, to the disadvantage of rights defenders. Anti-migrant rhetoric, often made up of erroneous arguments, is carried and relayed by various political parties, not only of the far right – although, in an electoral context marked by the candidacies of Eric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen, the anti-migrant discourse has been very present in the public debate ahead of April 2022 presidential elections. Civil society actors defending exiles’ human rights have little voice.

Following the death of a young Sudanese man who was run over by a truck, three people (including a Jesuit priest linked to Secours Catholique Caritas France) began a hunger strike on 11th October 2021 to put an end to the mistreatment of exiles seeking to cross the French-British border to reach the United Kingdom. This hunger strike, launched by people unknown to the general public and without prior support from the associative world, was widely publicised thanks to a strong citizen and associative mobilisation, which was active from 20th to 25th October 2022 and organised by VoxPublic. Despite the minimal demands of the hunger strikers (stop evictions from the camps during the winter and recognise the right of associations to distribute aid in places where the exiles live), who staged a 37-day hunger strike and the mobilisation of associations, the government has made almost no concessions.

After the death of 27 exiles (including several children) in the Channel on 24th November 2021, the government and its Minister of Interior Gérald Darmanin only pointed the finger at the smugglers, without questioning their policy against the exiles living along the coastline. However, it has been demonstrated for three decades that the use of force and the progressive militarisation of the French-British border (on the French side) are costly and ineffective, in addition to being detrimental to human rights – as highlighted by two reports published on 4th February 2022 by the Plateforme des Soutiens aux Migrantes (PSM). One person surveyed in the report stated:

“This system is made for you to waste your time, your hopes, your best years, it’s so unfair… We are seen as criminals, we are treated like dogs. Now there are elections soon and so they make us leave more, the police come and check us almost daily. It’s not human, they take our stuff, they’re racist, it’s their way of sending the message that they don’t want us. It’s not human ! Let them tell me where I can go to live with dignity!” (translated from French).

“7 from Briançon” migrant rights activists finally acquitted on appeal

Article L622-1 of the Code de l’Entrée et du séjour des étrangers et du Droit d’Asile states (with some exceptions) that “any person who has, by direct or indirect action, facilitated or attempted to facilitate the illegal entry, movement, or residence of a foreign national in France is liable to five years’ imprisonment and a 30,000 EUR fine”. Cédric Hérrou, an activist from the Roya valley who helped migrants by sheltering them on his farm next to the border of entry into France, was thus prosecuted, leading to numerous court cases. After a conviction, appeal and cassation, Cédric Hérrou’s trial was referred to the Lyon Court of Appeal, which acquitted him of the facts on 13th May 2020. However, the public prosecutor lodged a new appeal before the Court of Cassation which was rejected on 31st March 2021, thus ending all legal proceedings against Hérrou.

Despite the new jurisprudence, however, the French prosecutor’s office continued to maintain a restrictive interpretation of the humanitarian exemption. Seven people were prosecuted for taking part in a peaceful demonstration on 22nd April 2018, in reaction to an anti-migrant action by the (now disbanded) far-right group Génération Identitaire. On that occasion, around 200 people crossed the Alpine border from Italy into France in the presence of migrants; the so-called “7 from Briançon” were hence prosecuted for allegedly “helping the migrants to enter”. In December 2018, the criminal court of Gap had sentenced them in the first instance and some of them received prison sentences. They were finally acquitted on appeal only on 9th September 2021.

Despite the decision of 6th July 2018 of the Constitutional Council to enshrine the principle of fraternity (“It follows from the principle of fraternity of freedom to help one another, for humanitarian reasons, without consideration as to whether the assisted person is legally residing or not within the French territory”), the public prosecutor and certain courts continue to adopt a hostile attitude towards human rights activists. Only the interventions of the highest jurisdictional authorities have made it possible to put an end to these proceedings.

Anti-COVID19 protests banned from entering capital

On 10th February 2022 the Paris police authority banned the French “freedom convoy” from entering the capital between 11th and 14th February 2022 citing risk of public disorder. The movement is inspired by the ongoing turmoil in Ottawa, Canada, where in early February 2022 thousands of Canadian truckers and their supporters rose in opposition to the vaccine mandate for cross-border transit from the United States. However, protesters breached the ban and entered the capital on 12th February 2022, with police using tear gas to disperse them. According to police, 54 people were arrested.

International Womens Day protests

Women gathered in several cities across France on International Womens Day, 8th March, to protest against femicide and gender inequality, including the gender pay gap. Several thousand women gathered in Paris and criticised Emmanuel Macron’s government for failing in the fight against gender inequality. Several organisations, including the Women’s Foundation and Oxfam, have put forward an “emergency pact” which includes ten demands which they want to see implemented from the start of the next five-year term, which includes equal pay. 

Expression

Between the end of 2021 and the beginning of 2022, media and journalists in France have been threatened in many ways by different actors in the political and social landscape.

Journalist verbally attacked by the European Parliament’s Greens group co-president

On 14th December 2021, Liberation journalist Jean Quatremer was verbally attacked by Philippe Lamberts, the co-president of the Greens political group in the European Parliament, who insulted Quatremer’s journalistic work during a press conference. Quatremer assumed this attack was caused by an article he wrote at the beginning of December 2021 which investigated the influence peddling between the Greens, the Renew and the EPP groups for the election of Roberta Metsola as president of the European Parliament.

Journalists verbally, physically attacked by anti-vaccine demonstrators

In January 2022, on different occasions, several journalists were verbally and/or physically abused by anti-COVID-19 vaccine protesters:

  • On 3rd January 2022, in Paris, LCI channel journalist Paul Larrouturou was insulted and threatened by protesters outside the French National Assembly, while he was trying to interview some of them.
  • On 8th January 2022, in Nantes, freelance photographer Estelle Ruiz was physically assaulted by three protesters and pushed to the ground. The protesters grabbed her camera and threw it to the ground, destroying the device with which she was taking pictures for Studio Hans Luca photo agency.
  • On 15th January 2022, at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, around 150 participants of an anti-vax protest organised by the far-right party Les Patriotes approached a team working for Agence France-Presse (AFP) – two camera operators accompanied by two security guards. Around 50 of these demonstrators attacked the AFP group, threatening them with death. Only after the intervention of the security guards did the journalists manage to run away, while the guards were beaten with batons (and one of them was hit on the head with a bottle). Finally, the AFP team took cover behind a cordon of mobile gendarmerie.
  • On 24th January 2022, journalist Ophélie Meunier was targeted with death threats online following the broadcast of an episode of the show anchored by Meunier, “Zone interdite” on M6 TV channel that focused on radical Islamism in France. The journalist has been put under police protection.
  • On 9th February 2022, close to Perpignan, a BFM TV crew was subjected to intimidation and prevented from going on air to cover the new movement called Convoi de la liberté (inspired by the Freedom Convoy in Canada), which gathered drivers to protest against COVID-19 health measures, among other issues. A group of protesters surrounded the TV crew and threatened them, blaming BFM TV for “not providing objective information during the health crisis”.

Independent media Nantes Revoltée under administrative dissolution procedure

On 25th January 2022, the Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin announced before the National Assembly that the local, independent media Nantes Révoltée would be dissolved by administrative procedure. The media outlet is known for its online coverage of social and environmental movements. According to the journalists’ union SNJ-CGT, this dissolution would be “a threat to press freedom as a whole”, given that “for ten years, Nantes Révoltée has become one of the key media on the issue of police violence”. On 29th January 2022, the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme (LDH) asked Darmanin to stop the dissolution process.

Two journalists wounded by pro-independence protesters in Corsica

On 9th March 2022, pro-independence protests took place in the main cities of Corsica in reaction to the assault of a nationalist figure who is in prison, which saw some incidents of violence targeting journalists. In Bastia, a Corse-Matin photographer was assaulted by a protester who hit the journalist on the head with a stone. After firemen rescued him, the photographer was taken to hospital, where he was provided with medical care.

In Ajaccio, a TF1 TV journalist was hit by a grenade, which injured one of his legs while he was covering the protest. At the local hospital, the journalist received seven stitches and ten days of temporary disability (meaning total incapacity to work).

Journalist targeted with rape and death threats

On 16th March 2022, the Vice France journalist Justine Reix reported on Twitter that she had been harassed by a “friend” of a former interviewee, who threatened to rape and kill her if she didn’t delete the interview. This person called Reix “dirty whore” on the phone and made death threats against her family and editor. Reix filed a complaint with the police, and was supported by her editors, who also offered her legal assistance.