Following a series of recent terror attacks, the Global Security bill, known as the “proposition de loi relative à la sécurité globale” was introduced in November 2020 in the French Parliament by President Emmanuel Macron’s political party, La Republique en Marche (LREM). But what impact is it likely to have?
French lawmakers had pledged that the comprehensive bill was intended to “protect those who protect us“. This was highlighted by Gérald Darmanin, the Interior Minister, when referencing the various attacks on French police, including a case in October where 40 people had attempted to attack a police station, in the Parisian suburb of Champigny-sur-Marne. Subsequently, France’s Assemblée Nationale’s lower chamber voted on the bill on November 24, 2020, with 288 votes in favor, 104 votes against, and 66 abstentions. The bill now moves to the Senate in January 2021 for examination and must also receive a referral from the Constitutional Council before it comes into effect.
However, multiple provisions have raised significant concerns about the bill, including a threat to the right to privacy and the right to demonstrate, regarding the possibility for the police to film citizens by using video surveillance cameras as noted in Article 20, pedestrian cameras walking cameras (Article 21) or “air operated” cameras and even drones (Article 22). Further, Article 23 includes the automatic abolition of reductions in sentences for persons convicted of violence or threats against police officers (including municipal officers), gendarmes, firefighters, etc., while Article 25 authorizes the police and gendarmerie to carry their weapons outside their service in public buildings, with no possibility to object. However, at the heart of the controversy is Article 24, which prohibits anyone from taking photos of national police agents, gendarmerie soldiers or a municipal police officer in the line of duty; and distributing those images online and in the press “with the aim of damaging their physical or psychological integrity“. The offense carries a prison sentence of up to one year and a maximum fine of €45,000. Furthermore, the bill makes it mandatory to blur the faces of police officials in any images by journalists or civilians.
After some left and centrist Members of Parliament voiced their disapproval, a clause was added stating that the right to information will not be breached, and an amendment was adopted to ensure the broadcasting ban does not apply to individual police identification numbers (called RIO), “since their revelation is not likely to expose the police and gendarmes to reprisals.” However, the amended provision is still questionable due to its ambiguity and subjectivity to interpretation, which will make it extremely hard to prove the extent to which any evidence might impact individual judges and persuade them that there was a definite intent to harm.
As stated by the French human rights ombudsman, Claire Hédon, the bill also “raises considerable risks of infringement of several fundamental rights, in particular, the right to privacy and freedom of information“. Further, 3 rapporteurs from the UN Human Rights Council believe that this law carries “significant violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, placing France in contradiction with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the European Convention of Human Rights.”
Police brutality has been an issue in France for decades, and videos of incidents are easily broadcast through the media. However, legislators want to stop the circulation of these images and videos, creating unease with those who feel that the law contradicts the democratic fabric of the Republic. For Europe Écologie Les Verts (EELV), Article 24 aims “to dissuade, in fact, citizens from filming police operations” and “calls into question the ability of justice to prosecute in cases of violence committed by law enforcement officers.” Furthermore, as highlighted by Cecile Coudriou, the President of Amnesty International France, “if people cannot film anything in the streets when the police may sometimes have illegal use of force, it’s a very working message to send.” These videos have also previously been a useful source in legal cases. In January 2020, a bypasser’s video was treated as decisive evidence in the case of Cédric Chouviat, who succumbed to death after three officers stayed pinning him to the ground despite his cries of “I’m suffocating” more than seven times. As a result, the police officers were charged with manslaughter by a French Court in July 2020.
Opponents to the bill have also highlighted the bill’s disparate treatment of ordinary citizens. For example, police officers are permitted to film ordinary citizens without their consent via boy-cams and drones, but citizens have now been prohibited from doing the same to police officers. Similarly, France’s second-biggest magistrates’ trade union, the Syndicate du la Magistrature, stated in a press release published on November 4 that this text is going “to further roll back democratic control over what is at stake, the police finally becoming the only ones to escape the honors of the cameras.” Opposition to the bill has also sparked large demonstrations in Paris and several other French cities.
Although the recent terrorist attacks and growing uncertainty have prompted the French Government to take a tough stance regarding security, the proposed amendment has serious chances of creating further distrust between the police and the citizens. Many analysts in France believe that the national politics may have a role to play in the episode, as the upcoming presidential elections are only shy of one year and a half. While Christophe Castaner, the head of President Emmanuel Macron’s group of centrist MPs in parliament, has now announced that Article 24 “will be completely rewritten and a new version will be submitted”, what needs to be seen is to what extent such a ‘new version’ will be able to satisfy the public concerns and whether or not the growing unpopularity over the amended bill will negatively impact the reputation of Macron’s party and their chances in the election because even an impression that the basic principles of the right to freedom of expression and right to freedom of the press are being compromised, it can seriously damage the public trust and confidence on which rests the reputation of the democratic institutions and their office holders.