Written by: Oona Carteron
The freedom of demonstration in France is not a principle written down in the Constitution. It is symbolically implied in Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights ratified in 1953 by the Council of Europe. The article provides the right ‘to freedom of thought conscience and religion; (…), to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.’ It, furthermore, states that this freedom to manifest one’s beliefs or religion must be subject to limitations prescribed by the law. Freedom of speech and of opinion is one of the corner stones of what democracy is. However, the French population has seen its rights increasingly disregarded in the last ten years. This article will intend to show the growing militarization of the French political system through the abusive repression of pacifist protests under the state of emergency declared in 2015, as well as its implications for democracy in France.
The state of emergency was declared in France in January 2015 after the Charlie Hebdo’s terrorist attacks. In November, during the COP 21 summit in Paris, a shocking amount of environmental activists were put on house arrests to prevent protests in the capital under the motive of being potential terrorist activists or threats to public order. During the state of emergency, Amnesty France studied the governmental repression of protests and published a report documenting the regression of the right to protest. According to the organization, under the state of emergency, 155 protests were prohibited in 18 months. They further state that more than 639 people were individually banned from demonstrations on the grounds of preventing social order disruptions with little or no evidence. Those sanctions are a crucial example of the arbitrary behavior of the prefectures and of the government. The state of emergency allows prefects to prohibit gathering as a preventive measure on the very vague ground of ‘disturbance of public order’. The government under the state of emergency displayed a policy of intimidation intending to deter any potential contestation movements. Demonstrations are therefore criminalized and seen as a potential threat more than as a fundamental right. In October 2016, Gérard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme publish A president should not say that. The book denounced the underlying rationale for many decisions of president Francois Hollande. The most relevant and shocking part of the book is the transcription of a conversation in which, Hollande openly acknowledged that he used the state of emergency to limit environmental demonstrations during the COP 21
On the 26 October 2014, Rémi Fraisse was killed by an OF-FI stun grenade launched by a police officer. The officer first was cleared during the preliminary investigation and then heard as a witness in the case but never charged. The violence was qualified as ‘proportionate’. Protests erupted all around France and Rémi’s family appealed the court decision. The accident was justified on the grounds of raison d’état and five years later the trial is still ongoing, and no sentence has been pronounced. The authoritarian response of the government regarding social movements of contestation is disproportionate, illegitimate and dangerous. The French government is conducting a hypocrite policy, while completely disregarding the concept of political transparency. In august 2019, France condemned the excessive use of force perpetrated
by the Russian government in Moscow during demonstrations, reminding of its attachment to freedom of speech in all its forms. On June 28, 2019, during a peaceful gathering of the Extinction Rebellion movement in Paris unjustified and abusive police violence reached its climax. Videos of police officers gazing (tears gas) militants that were sitting down with their hands up triggered anger among the French population. The dual discourse of the government and the incoherence of its actions greatly undermine its legitimacy and nurtures the anger of a population tired of getting brutalized by those in charge of their protection.
The militarization of the French police forces can also be seen in the use of law enforcement measures contrary to international laws. The systematic use of the LBD ‘lanceurs de balles de défense’, rubber bullet guns in English, in demonstrations has been a controversial topic in France. Those guns are classified as A2 type weapons or in generic terms ‘war weapons’ by international regulations according to an investigation of Le Monde conducted in April 2019.
The use of excessive force in police strategies in demonstrations as well as the resort to dangerous military weapons resulted in an unprecedented number of injuries among militants. The situation of political omerta and state denial is evident and the imbalance and abuses in the law enforcement measures are inconceivable. The video of Jérôme Rodrigues, a pacifist militant who lost an eye during a protest symbolizes the government’s intolerance facing contestation. A yellow-vest found guilty of throwing a can of rillettes at a police officer in Marseille was sentenced to 4 months in jail while no sanction whatsoever has been pronounced against the police officer responsible for the death of Zined Rombhane (an 80 years-old local who died of her injuries after a grenade was thrown into her home by the police ). The government’s refusal to admit the excessive use of violence participates in the rise of anger among militants protesting with the only goal of improving their life conditions.
Moreover, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe issued a warning towards the French government on the discordance between law enforcement measures regarding protesters and respect of human rights. He called for the suspension of the use of LBD guns stating that ‘head wounds caused by LBD fire show disproportionate use of force’. Finally, the impunity of the police in France, exposed for years in cases of deaths in custody, remains a revolting reality: despite the opening of 220 investigations by the IGPN, 6 months after the beginning of the Yellow Vests movement, no police officer has yet been charged. Over the same period, at least 2000 demonstrators were convicted, most often in immediate appearance.
Unfortunately there have been far too many example of the French police forces power and violence abuse in the past few years. The government’s inaction facing police violence only enhanced already existing anger among the French population. The militarization of the police forces and the establishment of systematic state violence is seriously damaging French democracy domestically as well as on the international stage. Even though the repression has not reached the intensity of other countries’ like China, it is important to note that at least the
Chinese government was never seen as democracy, role model of human rights and freedom. Instead of ‘protecting’ the population, the police forces create fear among militants, deterring younger or more fragile individuals to protest. If the French government was putting as much effort in drafting reforms to improve the lives of the disregarded French citizens as it does in ‘maintaining order’ maybe we could see the number of demonstrations drastically diminishing. The observed limitations of the right to protest is not only inacceptable but a clear rejection of the core principles of democracy.
- – Greenpeace, ‘La répression des militants non violents un risque pour notre démocratie’, 14 October 2019, https://www.greenpeace.fr/la-repression-des-militants-non-violents- un-risque-pour-notre-democratie/
- – Amnesty France, ‘France. Répression abusive des manifestations sous couvert de lutte contre le terrorisme’, 31 May 2017, https://www.amnesty.fr/presse/france-rpression- abusive-des-manifestations-sous-c
- – Amnesty France, ‘Le droit de Manifester est menacé’, 31 May 2017, https://www.amnesty.fr/liberte-d-expression/actualites/droit-de-manifester-en-france
- – Le Monde, ‘La France et l’Allemagne condamnent la répression des manifestations de l’opposition à Moscou’, 4 August 2019, https://www.lemonde.fr/international/article/2019/08/04/paris-et-berlin-condamnent- la-repression-des-manifestations-de-l-opposition-a-moscou_5496559_3210.html
- – Le Figaro, ‘L’Europe et l’ONU condamnent l’usage disproportionné de la force par la police’, Coline Vasquez, 14 February 2019, https://www.lefigaro.fr/international/2019/02/14/01003-20190214ARTFIG00278-l- europe-condamne-l-usage-disproportionne-de-la-force-par-la-police.php
- – The NewStatesman, ‘The French police’s brutality against the gilets jaunes can no longer be denied’, Pauline Bock, 30 January 2019, https://www.newstatesman.com/world/europe/2019/01/french-police-s-brutality- against-gilets-jaunes-can-no-longer-be-denied
DISCLAIMER: The opinions and views expressed in this opinion piece belong to the author and are independent of the Department of Political Economy and KCL Politics Society.