France has been roiled for days, with mass protests and collective outrage, over a proposed security law that would criminalize recording or photographing police behavior with “obvious intention to harm their physical and psychological integrity” in the public square.
The proposal garnered such extreme backlash, with thousands of people taking to the streets in opposition of the legislation, that the ruling party of President Emmanuel Macron promised to rewrite the bill.
The recent unrest was ignited over the beating of Black music producer Michel Zecler by four police officers in Paris on Nov. 21. The CCTV footage that captured the incident shows the officers kicking and punching Zecler for several minutes. Zecler accused the officers of racial bias and the four policemen are now under criminal investigation.
Meanwhile, the French police union is urging prosecutors to charge Zecler with resisting arrest.
Nevertheless, protesters and defenders of Zecler argue the new security law would prevent tragedies like this from coming to light.
Opponents asserted that the bill was overly vague and prevents citizens from holding police officers accountable, while proponents of the bill claimed that the law would help protect police from online targeting and abuse.
Notwithstanding a potential rewrite, the mere proposal of such a draconian security law calls into question France’s dedication and commitment to accountability and stemming police brutality.
The backdrop of France’s security bill comes in light of this summer’s worldwide Black Lives Matter protests that were sparked after George Floyd, a Black man, died while in Minneapolis police custody in broad daylight on May 25.
Brutal scenes of police firing tear gas and beating protesters across France once again highlighted repressive police tactics and systemic racism, some of the many themes associated with a tumultuous 2020.
France, much like the United States and other multiracial societies, has long struggled to uphold its universal and democratic ideals of racial equality enshrined in its egalitarian constitution and reality on the ground. Recent tragedies of police violence against Black and Arab citizens in France has led to a nationwide movement to alter France’s race-neutral policies.
Floyd’s death and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests brought identity politics and France’s long history of colonialism and racial inequality into the public consciousness. The main instances of excessive use of police force captured on film in recent times, like the beating of Zecler, were leveled against people of color.
France’s African and Arab minorities have felt betrayed and marginalized by a system that reinforces institutional racism throughout not only policing and security but state-society relations.
French law since 1978 also does not recognize race, ethnicity, or religion, but rather citizen or immigrant, a “colorblind” approach that effectively ignores identity.
There are no race-conscious public policies addressed to disaffected minority communities and France does not keep track of national statistics based on race or ethnicity that would help address systemic discrimination as the U.S. Census Bureau does.
French public policy focuses on French national identity as a means to integrate its minority populations and this approach creates an environment of systemic discrimination because there are no reliable indicators of social, economic or political inequalities.
In France, identifying as anything other than French is considered to be a threat to collective French identity.
“As a result, historically the French have been unable to collect information on, say, college applicants, because if someone designated they were Algerian-French this would be differentiating them from other French nationals and thus problematic,” said Professor Elizabeth Carter, an assistant professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. “The idea is that all French nationals are equal. But of course, they are not treated this way.”
Outside, in the suburbs of France’s largest cities, there are often underdeveloped communities, called banlieues, where there is a long track record of tension between police and residents of these areas—and sometimes the response to police behavior results in riots.
“So, you have a situation where marginalized communities are often in specific geographic communities, and where there is a strong perception of an excessive use of force,” Carter said.
Article 24 of France’s Global Security Law also calls into question the democratic makeup of France in a time when democracy is being eroded and undermined all across the world, including, many say, the United States, where President Trump refuses to concede in the election to President-elect Joe Biden.
Human rights experts immediately came out in opposition to the bill, calling it incompatible with international human rights law and democratic norms. United Nations human rights experts also stressed that video surveillance from the public is an essential tool in holding the authorities accountable in a democratic society.
“These are very timely reminders that images of police abuse captured by the public play a vital role in oversight of public institutions, which is fundamental to the rule of law,” the experts said.
Benjamin Haddad, director of the Future of Europe Initiative at the Atlantic Council, cautions that despite the fervent uproar over the legislation, part of the misunderstanding is that the bill was hastily written and not properly explained to the public.
“Part of the confusion is that people were saying it would be forbidden to film police officers – but it only criminalizes sharing content of police with threats online,” Haddad said.
Along with the most recent turmoil in the streets, France has frequently experienced mass mobilization after public disaffection with French public policy, and many often turn violent.
The gilets jaunes, or yellow vest movement, is a large part of police motivation to seek broader powers. The yellow vest movement first emerged in 2018 after Macron announced an environmental tax on fuel. Initially peaceful protests quickly turned violent with widespread looting and vandalism throughout Paris.
“During the gilets jaunes protests, some of the protesters were filming law enforcement and sharing the posts on social media with names and addresses,” Haddad explained. “There were many death threats against them, and some police officers have been attacked at home.”
The Global Security Law is an extension of efforts led by police unions after the yellow vest movement to protect the police and allow them to do their jobs safely.
Haddad also argues that the recent civil unrest and promises to rewrite the law are an example of where democracy works.
“I think the government is listening to the public reaction and debate and will take more time to explain the bill and include more groups,” he said. “These are really fraught and divisive issues, and you have to be as inclusive as possible when you draft these security bills and it’s a good thing to take a step back and listen to the outcry.”
Still, even in the uncertainty over Article 24 of the Global Security Law, there remain other problematic clauses in the bill. Article 21 allows the police to film their interactions with citizens and Article 22 authorizes the police to use drone technology to monitor the public.
“It is important not to miss the fact that the rest of the law, including the problematic Articles 21 and 22 on body-worn cameras and drones allowing real-time facial recognition and identification, will continue,” said Kartik Raj, Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch.