French civil society warns that the law “on the respect of the republican principles” (Law No. 2021-1109 of 24 August 2021), dubbed as the “Separatism bill”, is already having a negative impact on civic space and civil liberties, such as the freedom of association and freedom of expression.
The law entered into force on 1 January 2022 despite widespread concerns about the broadened scope for sanctioning powers afforded to administrative authorities in policing the activity of associations (see, for example, the appeal to the Council of State against the decree implementing the law by a coalition of 25 CSOs). The law notably made it easier for authorities to dissolve an association via presidential decree upon proposal of the Ministry of Interior. It also introduced a “contract of republican engagement”, a new requirement for civil society to access funding or obtain accreditations. The “contract” requires associations to commit to respect the principles of liberty, equality, fraternity and human dignity, the secular nature of the State, and to refrain from any action which undermines public order. The law also breaks with the traditional liability of legal persons, assigning responsibility to associations for acts that are either committed by members acting in that capacity or directly linked to their activities, thus imposing an impossible burden of control on the association’s management.
As the “Separatism Law” is being applied, it appears that its effects confirm civil society’s concerns:
- In March, the mayor of Chalon-sur-Saône tried to prevent the holding of an event organised for the International Women’s Rights Day by Planning Familial 71, which has been campaigning for more than 60 years for the equality of women and men and the right to sex education. The promotional poster featured a veiled woman among others, which the mayor agued constituted a violation of the principle of secularism. The mayor’s order was suspended in summary proceedings by the Dijon administrative court and eventually declared illegal by the Council of State.
- In June, the Ile-de-France region suspended its subsidy to the Ligue de l’Enseignement (the oldest association in France, created in 1866 with almost a million affiliates across France) after seven young participants in a publicly-funded debating competition made remarks “contrary to the values of secularism and the Republic”, despite the organisation making clear that the speeches do not reflect the association’s position on secularism.
- In September, the prefect of the Vienne department urged public authorities in the Poitiers area to withdraw their funding to “Village des Alternatives”, a festival organised by Alternatiba, a grassroots movement fighting against climate change and social inequalities, because the programme included civil disobedience workshops, which would allegedly breach the “contract of republican commitment”.
- A number of associations, such as Groupe Antifasciste Lyon et Environs (GALE) and the independent media “Nantes Révoltée”, have been threatened with administrative dissolution. The dissolution of the pro-Palestinian organisations Comité Action Palestine and Collectif Palestine Vaincra proposed by the government was suspended by an intervention of the Council of State.
- A report published by the Observatoire des libertés associatives earlier this year found that the fight against Islamism, in which the rationale of the law is enshrined, has led to discriminatory political and financial hindrance on the part of public authorities against associations in which Muslim people participate. Thus, the law has been feared to have a direct discriminatory impact as well as indirect chilling effect on minorities and particularly on French Muslims.
It is important to note that even when these actions did not lead to a suspension of funding or dissolution, they have serious material and symbolic costs such as reputational damage and intimidation. They also divert capacities and resources away from the mission of the organisation to defend itself in court and in the public. These indictments may also deter other associations and activists from pursuing their normal actions, for fear of repression.
Last year, as the bill was still in being discussed in the French Parliament, the European Civic Forum , along with 10 European and French CSOs, wrote an open letter to European Commissioner for Justice, Didier Reynders, and Director of the European Fundamental Rights Agency to express concern about the possible disproportionate restrictions on CSOs’ freedom of association, freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience and religion as well as the violation of the right to non-discrimination, as protected under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
In its reply to the open letter, the European Commission committed to follow the legislative developments on the bill and, if necessary, to assess the compatibility of the “Separatism Law” with EU law, including the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and with rule of law standards, including as regards its impact on civil society.
The impact of the “Separatism Law” on civic space in France is now becoming significant. The European Civic Forum calls on the European institutions to make full use of the tools at their disposal to investigate the cases that have brought protest, in order to protect the role of civil society in France and in the EU as a whole.
In the context of the next Rule of Law Report, the European Commission should carefully scrutinise the compatibility of the law with the rights protected under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and with rule of law standards. In the framework of the annual rule of law report, we urge the European Commission to formulate clear recommendations to French authorities to amend the law to discard those provisions which are incompatible with EU law.
We also invite the European Parliament LIBE Democracy, Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights Monitoring Group to hear from affected CSOs on the ground and to demand clarifications from French authorities on the impact of the “Separatism Law” when assessing the situation in France as a part of their monitoring tools.