On 21 June, the French Council of Ministers issued a decree dissolving the environmental movement the Soulèvements de la Terre, after the Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin accused the group of being responsible for violent actions. On the eve of the decision, several members of the movement were taken into police custody by counter-terrorism agents.
The government began the process of the dissolving on 28 March after the group took part in a large demonstration in Sainte-Soline against the construction of “megabassines” (giant water reservoirs). The demonstration was notable for widespread police violence as reported by many media outlets and observers, with the Ligue des droits de L’Homme reporting that the police used a “disproportionate use of force against all those present, and this indiscriminately”.
The move to dissolve the group raises serious concerns from international institutions and French civic actors about the right to demonstrate and to free speech as well as about shrinking civic space and backsliding rule of law in France. In recent months, the criminalisation of activism took place amid repeated crackdowns on protest, both against environmental activists and those opposing the government’s controversial pension reforms.
This dissolution is embedded in the government’s “separatism” bill, which expanded the grounds for administrative dissolution of associations without the involvement of the judiciary, which restricts the freedom of association. Based on the law, introduced in 2021, French associations that want access to public means (including public meeting rooms) are obliged to sign a so-called Contrat d’Engagement Republicain (Republican Contract) that declares their commitment to the principles of equality, liberty, laicity (a notion close to secularism), and respect of the public order.
However, the use of this legislation has been questioned by CSOs as its main effect is to increase the sanctioning powers given to administrative authorities and prefectures across France to dissolve associations.
Indeed, on the basis of the law and under the guise of protecting public order, authorities have for instance taken actions against organisations undertaking civil disobedience. These “disobediences” often consist of a purely symbolic violation of a rule to draw public attention to crucial issues and make the authorities face up to their responsibilities. It is important to note that international human rights law on the freedom of assembly and expression recognise that collective civil disobedience or direct-action campaigns can be covered by the right to peaceful assembly and expression, provided that they are not intentionally violent.
In a statement responding to the decision taken against “les Soulèvements de la Terre”, the Ligue des droits de l’Homme reports:
“The administrative dissolution was confirmed following the opening of a judicial investigation in connection with sabotage carried out on a Lafarge infrastructure which led to a number of people being held in police custody at the beginning of June, although no charges were ultimately pressed. The government’s arguments have been supplemented in the meantime. The lack of a clear dividing line between the judicial procedure and the preparation of an administrative decision by the Ministry of the Interior is alarming, especially as it appears that the people detained were questioned about their political opinions and their perception of radicalism.”
The LDH further states:
“We will not accept the threat to the freedoms of association, demonstration, and expression, as well as the rights of the defence, that the dissolution decree implies.” – Read the full LDH statement (in French)
A LEGAL BATTLE AHEAD
The Soulèvements de la Terre immediately announced that they will appeal the decision in the State Council. In a statement released shortly after the announcement (on Twitter) by the Minister of Interior, the movement stated that “more than a thousand people have already declared their intention to challenge this decree, and anyone wishing to join this historic legal action could fill in a form”. As pointed out in an article by Le Figaro, the government will now have to provide evidence proving that Les Soulèvements de la Terre does indeed provoke . Although governmental sources are confident that the case is strong enough, the journalist points out that 33 dissolutions of associations or movements were promulgated since President Emmanuel Macron first took office in 2017. A dozen were finally overruled by the State Council.
Several spontaneous gatherings already took place across France on 21 June, bringing over 10 000 people according to the movement’s Telegram channel. They have also announced new mobilisations are planned on 28 June and throughout the summer.
Following the hearing on August 8th, the Council of State suspended the dissolution of the Soulèvements de la Terre issued by a decree in the Council of Ministers of June 21.
The judges “considered that there is a serious doubt as to the qualification of provocation to violent acts against persons and property retained by the decree of dissolution”.
In a document released by the Council of State about the hearing, they state that:
“This decree is neither appropriate, nor necessary, nor proportionate to the purpose of safeguarding public order, since it is based on actions that are not attributable to the Earth Uprisings, which in any case concern cause less than a third of the mobilizations supported by the collective and which do not take on the character of gravity allowing to justify a measure as radical as the dissolution; it constitutes an unjustified and disproportionate attack on freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of association protected by the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms” (translated from French).
The Soulèvements de la Terre has called this a “first victory” but reminded us that it is also “the first round in a very long judicial battle”.