Joint letter signed by several trade unions and NGOs and published at France Info on 4 October 2020.

This new scheme is a missed opportunity to better protect the freedom to demonstrate,” says the letter.

On 17 September, the government made public the new national policing scheme (SNMO). “This new stage in the practice of policing in France is ambitious and unprecedented. It is necessary to guarantee the freedom to demonstrate and to protect our fellow citizens, demonstrators or not, and their belongings”, said Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin. But NGOs and trade unions denounce a text that was drawn up “without consultation” and which “confirms or even worsens dangerous practices”.

While demonstrations in France over the last two years have caused thousands of injuries to both protesters and police forces, the law and order reform presented on 17 September confirms the Interior Ministry’s desire to reject any significant developments in this area and opens the way to new attacks on freedom of information. This new national plan for the maintenance of law and order was published without any real consultation or transparency, despite the demands of several NGOs and journalists’ unions in this regard, and contrary to what was stated by the former Secretary of State for the Interior, Laurent Nunez.

Yet we had concrete recommendations to guarantee respect for human rights, including respect for the physical integrity of individuals, and the right to demonstrate peacefully. These recommendations are based on international law, in particular the respect of the principles of legality, necessity and proportionality, and on the reflections engaged in many European police forces to move towards de-escalation strategies. The objective? To reduce tensions through dialogue and facilitation in order to build confidence between the police and protesters, and to avoid the use of force as much as possible.

Alarming conditions’ for journalists

The SNMO published by the government, far from proposing indispensable structural reforms, endorses or even aggravates dangerous practices. The continued use of de-encerclement grenades and LBD40s is confirmed, despite calls from many associations, the Council of Europe and ophthalmologists to suspend or prohibit their use. The proposed use of de-cannonising grenades, presented as less dangerous, is not sufficient, as the impacts of these weapons of war remain by definition disproportionate and indiscriminate. Moreover, the replacement of GLI-F4 grenades by GM2L grenades, whose effects remain dangerous and counter-productive, cannot be accepted, since they consist in deafening and thus disorienting demonstrators when they are asked to disperse.

The need “to ensure that journalists are taken into account as much as possible”, announced in the document made public, could be positive if it were not accompanied by alarming conditions. For example, the right to wear protective equipment – much needed in the midst of the massive use of tear gas – is conditional on the absence of “any offence or provocation”. While offences can be defined, the term “provocation” is vague enough to open the way to arbitrariness: what is a journalist who provokes? In view of the number of journalists who are worried or prevented from exercising their profession, it would also have been useful to recall that the press card is not necessary to establish the status of the journalist.

“Moreover, observers, like journalists, were indiscriminately associated with the demonstrators, since they were reminded that they would be committing an offence if they did not disperse after being summoned. The work of observers is to document law enforcement practices, and that of journalists to inform. Forcing them to leave when force is used is tantamount to obstructing their mission”.

The signatories of the platform

Should we recall that without the work of journalists and observers, but also the testimonies of citizens, most of the police violence recorded in recent years would have been ignored?

A worrying level of neglect

The SNMO does not in any way call into question the practice of the ” mass arrests “, which are too often abusively used, immobilising peaceful demonstrators, generally under the spray of tear gas, at the risk of provoking clashes. Apart from improvements in the information provided to demonstrators and the clarity of the warnings, the Ministry of the Interior has made virtually no changes to the SNMO and has taken it on board, endorsing the practices for the winter of 2018-2019. A winter in which simple passers-by, police officers, journalists and thousands of people were injured, twenty or so demonstrators were dazed and six had their hands ripped off. Zineb Redouane probably died as a result. And we are still waiting for the judicial outcome of the complaints and proceedings.

France sadly stands out in Europe for the number of people mutilated or seriously injured during demonstrations. Failure to undertake serious structural reform after investigations and alerts from the Human Rights Defender, UN experts, journalists’ unions, the Council of Europe and NGOs reveals a worrying level of neglect.

Read the full letter in French here.