Public protests are a rare sight in protests-prone France since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
But over the weekend, many felt it was time to make their voices heard again. Between 133,000 and 500,000 people – according to police and organizers, respectively – demonstrated in more than 70 cities across France against a security bill, even as the country remains under partial lockdown.
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The new law aims to increase police protection, in particular through Article 24, which would criminalize the publication of images of duty officers with the intention of harming their “physical or psychological integrity. “. On Monday, however, a parliamentary majority appeared to give in to public pressure, saying it now plans a “complete rewrite” of the controversial section.
“The bill will be completely rewritten and a new version will be submitted,” said Christophe Castaner, leader of the LREM party of President Emmanual Macron, majority in the National Assembly.
Many French citizens fear that increased police protections could expose them to police violence – a fear made even more pressing by the recent forced evacuation of a migrant camp in central Paris and the violent arrest of a music producer black. Agents involved in both operations are currently under investigation, in part because footage from both events has been made public.
A new law “would lead to even more police brutality”
The videos came as a profound shock to Santiago Kadeyan, a 19-year-old medical student who was among the protesters on Saturday in Place de la République in Paris.
“The new law would also give more powers to the police, allow them to use drones during demonstrations, [give them] more money – while restricting our right to defend ourselves, ”Kadeyan told DW. This will certainly lead to even more police brutality. ”
Protesters in Paris, at least 45,000, came from various ethnic and professional backgrounds and included teachers, psychologists and journalists.
Members of the latter group believe the bill would restrict freedom of the press – although the article has now been amended to say that it must not “infringe the legitimate right to inform the public”.
But that does not reassure Adeline Queraux, Parisian journalist in a national daily. “I’m really concerned that this will have a huge impact on our work,” she told DW. Queraux has been a regular at protests since she was little, but on Saturday was the first time she was scared protesting.
“I’m afraid of violence – the atmosphere is really aggressive now, without any restraint, and the government is leaning more and more to the right,” she said.
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It is not just the security bill that worries people about the government’s right-wing turn. A new police system could mean journalists will need accreditation to cover protests, even those held in public. The government will soon introduce legislation to fight radical Islam, tighten control over Muslim groups and limit home schooling – but there are no plans to prevent discrimination against Muslims. And a provision in a new law on funding university research effectively banned protests on campuses – this in a country where students have historically played a significant role in protest movements.
“We are now at a turning point” under Macron’s presidency
Sebastian Roche, senior researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research, called the acceleration bills a trend he has observed since President Emmanuel Macron came to power in 2017.
“Macron was elected as being left and right, and he came up with a well-balanced program,” he told DW. “But he almost exclusively implemented right-wing policies, and opinion polls show that we are now at a crossroads: Macron has lost the support of almost all of his left-wing voters. And so he engages in Thatcherite politics – law-and-order approach with tougher penalties, more police, more prisons. ”
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This approach to public order will not be enough to convince voters before the next presidential election in April 2022, believes Bruno Cautres of the Institute of Political Studies in Paris (Sciences Po). “The French need security – but also from a social point of view. They are worried about their public services and unemployment, ”he said. “Macron must also meet these needs or he barely stands a chance in the next presidential election. ”
But Jean-Baptiste Moreau, lawmaker and spokesperson for Macron’s LREM party, denies that the government is pivoting to the right.
“Law and order is not a right-wing approach – it is also a left-wing approach. There is no freedom without security, ”he told DW. “Moreover, we cannot leave this subject to the far right of the National Rally (RN) – we have to find our own less radical solutions. ”
“There is a red line”: the legislators of LREM
But dissatisfaction with the new approach is growing, also within the government.
Cécile Rilhac is one of 10 LREM lawmakers who voted against the bill when it was passed in the National Assembly last week. Thirty other LREM members abstained during the vote. The law is still expected to go to the Senate for approval in January – although the government may decide to withdraw the controversial article entirely by then, a move Rilhac would support.
“We’re at a turning point and need to show the government that there is a red line – it shouldn’t lean more to the right or we won’t be much different from the RN,” she told DW.
Rilhac is one of 10 LREM lawmakers to vote against the security bill
Along with a few other LREM lawmakers, Rilhac is working to create another more left-wing political party ahead of the 2022 elections – although that party is still part of Macron’s parliamentary bloc.
Other lawmakers have already left LREM, including Aurélien Tache, who joined a green parliamentary group in May.
“I had to leave – I felt like I was betraying my constituents. Macron has implemented almost nothing but right-wing measures limiting civil liberties and supporting big business. He did nothing to fight discrimination and poverty, ”he said. “And with this new security law he has reached a whole new level – he really wants to become the champion of the right,” he added.
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But researcher Roche believes Macron’s strategy could work, with one condition.
“He has a good chance of being re-elected in 2022, as long as he faces leader RN Marine Le Pen in the second round,” he said. “If, however, the left-wing parties and the Greens presented a common candidate, Macron might have to run against their candidate. Then the election result could no longer be taken for granted, precisely because Macron did little to appeal to left-wing voters. ”
Either way, Macron seems unlikely to win Kadeyan’s vote in 2022. “Macron has two years to prove he’s capable of human empathy and decency,” the protester said. “If he doesn’t, I would just vote white in the event of a Le Pen-Macron duel. ”