Article written for the Civic Space Watch by Alexia Ozeel, ECF, on 30/03/2023
Since French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne announced the new pension and retirement scheme to increase the retirement age from 62 to 64 in January, there have been frequent nation-wide strikes to protest against this scheme. Schools, public transport, bins, and aviation services have also been disrupted for several weeks, causing travel cancellations and tonnes of waste accumulation in major cities. Although the protests started peacefully, demonstrators continually clashed with police forces and led to the arrest of several protestors.
On March 20th, the controversial pension reform was adopted as PM Borne invoked Article 49.3, a constitutional clause which “grants the government executive privilege to pass a bill without a parliamentary vote”. However, the government’s decision to push this law without an official vote triggered two no-confidence votes, one of which Macron narrowly survived by 9 votes, and has sparked outrage amongst the French public, civil actors, and trade unions.
Now, the response of authorities to the protests and continuous strikes in France has reached unprecedented levels of violence and police brutality as France faces more than 10 days of protests.
March 23rd recorded more than 200 protests and strikes across France, and whilst many were peaceful, it was also a day that witnessed the most violence and tensions by the hand of the riot police (BRAV’M), a controversial force known for inciting violence with batons and tear gas.
The most violent episodes were:
- In Paris, 903 fires were lit around the city.
- Police used tear gas to disperse crowds in Paris, Nantes and Bordeaux and water cannons in Rennes.
- In Bordeaux, the front door of the city town hall was set on fire.
That day, approximately 457 people were arrested nationwide. An additional 201 people were arrested on March 28th.
There have also been recent cases of journalists covering the reform protests facing violence and intimidation from the police. Two serious cases include a photojournalist from the Hans Lucas Agency photographing the protests in Rennes thrown to the ground by the National police for 30 seconds, and another from Loopsider who was threatened with a baton and had a teargas grenade thrown at him, despite showing a press card.
Now, a recent AI surveillance policy has passed through the French government, which can have serious implications on civic freedoms.
Protest Rights Threatened by New AI Law
On March 23rd, article 7 of the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games Law was adopted by the French National Assembly. This law implements and experiments with the use of various AI algorithmic surveillance tools in public spaces to prevent real-time terrorist or crowd attacks by detecting suspicious crowd movements, body language, or clothing through CCTV cameras and drones. This technology identifies, analyses and classifies bodies, physical attributes, gestures, silhouettes, and procedures. Not only this, but this intrusive AI technology will also include body scanners to regulate the access of sporting events with more than 300 spectators and DNA tests for sportsmen and sportswomen to carry out anti-doping controls.
France is now the first European country to implement and legalise intrusive biometric surveillance methods for large-scale events. This could set a worrying precedent for intrusive AI methods to be established in other European countries which would infringe on international laws on privacy and civic freedoms.
These AI surveillance methods are meant to be temporary and last till late June 2025. However, the Ligue des droits de l’Homme (LDH) and Quadrature du Net associations have shared concerns about the nature of this experiment, fearing that the Olympics are a pretext to perpetuate permanent AI surveillance laws in France and that it could currently be used to control and track other mass gatherings, including festivals and protests.
Moreover, on March 1st, the European Center for Not-For-Profit Law (ECNL), with the support of 38 CSOs including the ECF, Quadrature du Net, and Amnesty International France, sent an open-letter to the National Assembly to highlight the risks the bill can have on civic freedoms, international human rights law and the future EU AI Act. Despite efforts from CSOs to address these risks, the bill passed the National Assembly in a time in which France is experiencing nation-wide protests, police violence, and limited civic freedoms.
🚨‼️ Yesterday 🇫🇷 #France approved #JO2024 law.— ECNL | @email@example.com (@enablingNGOlaw) March 24, 2023
Using the pretext of #Paris2024 Olympic games, the law authorizes use of #AI-powered mass #surveillance: https://t.co/x9aIX5D1vS
❌This violates fundamental rights & may be in conflict w/ future #AIAct, as we warned w/ 38 CSOs: https://t.co/NDZtxlK1Yk
What does this mean for civic rights and AI regulations?
The Quadrature du Net has shared a statement expressing the danger of this AI surveillance law during a period of mass protests around France:
“At a time when images of police violence flood the screens, when the police, armed with batons, provide after-sales service for unpopular measures as possible, the intensification of police surveillance is part of a political strategy aimed at stifling any dissent… In the shadow of the tumult of the pension reform, and thanks to an extremely fast procedure as usual, the government managed to get one of the most dangerous technologies ever deployed accepted”.
Amnesty International has pointed out that France’s AI surveillance law also has implications on the future EU AI Act. Not only does it undermine the EU’s efforts to protect human rights by developing regulations to set common rules for the use of biometric identification, surveillance technologies or predictive analytics, but the public can question whether the purpose of AI policies is to develop mass surveillance methods in other EU countries, which would further threaten civic rights and privacy laws. The Quadrature du Net have also raised concerns that this could pave the way for other biometric AI technologies, such as audio surveillance and facial recognition, to be legalised.
Several political actors have responded to the turbulent situation in France. Clément Voule, UN Special Rapporteur for freedom of peaceful assembly and association, called on police to facilitate peaceful protests and avoid excessive use of force, urging “authorities to open negotiations with the demonstrators to avoid any deterioration.”
In a tweet, Dunja Mijatović, the Commissioner for Human Rights, has called for urgent action to stop all forms of violence which deteriorate civic freedoms.
#Manifestations en #France: Les violences doivent cesser. C’est une condition nécessaire à l’exercice effectif des libertés d’expression et de réunion, ainsi qu’à la confiance entre la population et les forces de l’ordre. https://t.co/G5lIvzpDkU— Commissioner for Human Rights (@CommissionerHR) March 24, 2023
Additionally, Patrick Baudouin, President of the LDH, has launched a petition against excessive uses of tear gas, intimidation, threats, riot control CS grenades, defensive bullet launchers, and against the employment of violent police forces, especially the BRAV-M and Anti-Crime Brigades.
This is a time in which French protesters, reporters, and CSOs feel unheard by their government. This is a time in which they feel unsafe by the police’s excessive violence and dispersal tactics. Yet, this is the time that the French government decided to pass a law on large-scale AI surveillance which will infringe the right to protest.
Updates: May 1st protests
On Labour Day, protests across France against the pension reform led to police clashing with protesters once again. In Lyon, Nantes, and Paris, protesters from the Black Bloc group reportedly threw projectiles. Police responded with tear gas and water cannons.
According to reports, 108 police officers were wounded in clashes across France and 291 protesters were arrested too.
Additionally, sources confirm that the French police were approved to use drones equipped with cameras for crowd monitoring at the protests. Human Rights groups filed a complaint against the move, saying the use of drones in this manner violates fundamental rights.
Journalists have also been exposed to police violence. Renowned journalist Rémy Buisine working for media outlet Brut was hit by a dispersal tear gas grenade and injured.
🇫🇷 FLASH – Le journaliste de Brut Rémy Buisine est à terre après avoir été touché par une grenade de désencerclement à Paris. (témoins) #ReformeDesRetraites #1erMai pic.twitter.com/NFmfGDk7Pc— Mediavenir (@Mediavenir) May 1, 2023
In a recent United Nations meeting, several nations called out France this week for the disproportionate police violence, including against protesters during the recent protests.
Mediapart sources have confirmed that neither Darmanin nor other deputies were present during the debate organized by the Insoumise on the maintenance of order.
Updates: May 4th
On May 4th, the Minister of Interior Gérald Darmanin and the Minister of Justice, Eric Dupond-Moretti announced that they would start thinking about developing a new “loi anti-casseurs” – an anti-thug or anti-riot law.
This law is aimed partly at rioters, such as black bloc groups, but will also affect peaceful protesters. The law would include measures to criminalise building barricades and to “allow prefects to issue administrative bands on demonstrations”.
This law has been criticised by French magistrates and lawyers who fear that it will restrict the freedom of assembly and expression.