By Laura Chevrot, GLOBUS Correspondent
‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’: Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood. Three words that have served as a symbol of French values since the French Constitution of 1848. But to what extent does France serve these principles?
Controversy has recently been sparked in France over the passing of a bill designed to protect security officials that criminalises filming police officers when the recording is made “with an obvious intention to harm”. Article 24, the bill in question, made this offense punishable by a fine of up to €45,000 and a year in prison. Due to the national uproar it sparked, the bill is set to be amended. However, it still brings up an essential question: where do we draw the line between protecting police officials and excessive police violence?
France has a history of police violence, especially against Arab populations, tracing as far back as the colonialization of Algeria. Already in the early 70s, organisations such as the Arab Workers’ Movement spoke up against “racist policing crimes”, where officers targeted Arab populations, convicting them of drug possession and other offenses.
Radicalised police violence was all the more evident in 2015 after emergency laws were put into place. Police officers were seen entering mosques violently and handcuffing or pointing their weapons at people, solely because they were Muslim.
In 2016, the death of Adama Traoré during an identity check caused public outcry, which is still ongoing as his sister demands justice, and which has been exacerbated by the recent Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd in the United States.
The question of police violence is more prominent now than ever, as testimonies of police brutality attracted mass media coverage during the 2019 Gilets Jaunes movement, and in the following years. The number of deaths caused by police violence has doubled in the past five years. An average of 25 to 35 people die a year from these unfortunate encounters. In 2019, a year marked by Gilet Jaunes protests, 868 official enquiries were made regarding police violence. Incidents included the use of tear gas and projectiles, as well as physical contact. The grenades used (GLI-F4s) contained about an ounce of TNT and caused many injuries. One 80-year-old woman was hit by a grenade whilst watching the demonstrations from her balcony and died shortly after. Although the police were not held accountable, an investigation recently issued suggests that the police may have aimed for her apartment for fear of being filmed. Since then, the use of GLI-F4s has been prohibited and replaced by similar tear gas (GML2s), although many argue that this change is merely symbolic and that the GML2 grenades are equally as dangerous. At the time of these events, French president Emmanuel Macron refused to acknowledge the gravity of the situation, giving out a clear message: “Do not speak of ‘repression’ or ‘police violence’; such words are unacceptable in a state under the rule of law”. The French term usually used to describe such incidents is ‘bavure’, the French equivalent to ‘blunder’, showing how normalized and downplayed police violence remains.
Among the events which have recently provoked public unrest was the assault of Michel Zecler on the 21st of November 2020, only three days before the adoption of Article 24, also called ‘Global Security Law’. Zecler was filmed being kicked and punched for 15 minutes by three officers on the grounds that he was not wearing a face mask. The report subsequently filed, argues that the incident occurred following an investigation into the smell of cannabis coming from Zecler’s studio. Zecler was also subject to verbal racist insults and claims to have been called a ‘sale nègre [dirty negro]’. Emmanuel Macron has denounced the officers’ actions as ‘unacceptable’ and ‘shameful’. According to Zecler, “[he] was lucky enough to have videos, which protected [him]”.
Footage of police officers acting violently when clearing refugee camps has also been shared on social media. On the 23rd of November 2020, two police officers were seen attacking a refugee and a journalist during the clearing of Afghan refugee tents on the Place de la République in Paris.
Yet the bill is not without purpose. Black police officer Adboulaye Kanté argues that “what people don’t understand is that some individuals are using videos to put the faces of our colleagues on social media so that they are identified, so that they are threatened or to incite hatred”. Indeed, French police officers are being increasingly threatened, so preventing the circulation of images where they are identifiable would protect them from unjustified violence. In 2016, a police officer and his partner were both killed in their home in front of their son. The act was filmed and livestreamed on Facebook by the culprit, who claimed allegiance to the Islamic State.
However, human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Reporteurs Sans Frontières (RSF) argue that the article is too vague in its explanations, leaving it “open to interpretation and hard to determine”. The Global Security Law places emphasis on images being diffused “with an obvious intention to harm”. According to RSF, since intentions cannot be objectively known, “it is impossible to know the degree to which [pieces of] evidence might influence judges and convince them that there was a clear intent to harm”. This reduces the freedom of press considerably, and “could seriously undermine the public’s right to be informed” by encouraging self-censorship among journalists. RSF further underlines the worrying fact that the idea for the bill was mentioned by interior minister Gérard Darmanin, who promised that “it would no longer be possible to disseminate the images of police officers and gendarmes on social media” with no reference to intent.
The problem goes beyond simply designing a law preventing the spread of images on social media: it is structural. Valentin Gendrot spent six months undercover as a police officer in 2019, and speaks of a flaw in the police system. He attests that four to six police officers in his office were regularly violent, but that none of the other officers would speak out against them because of implicit codes of conduct. Gendrot reinforces the claim that policemen are at risk and must be protected, saying that they feel abandoned. He attests that in 2019 alone, 59 police officers committed suicide across the country. This suggests that there is something fundamentally wrong in the way in which the police force operates, and that further attention must be put into protecting both policemen and civilians, for example through more thorough training processes. Protecting civilians by reducing the incidence of police violence could put frustration with the police force to rest and render measures such as Article 24 redundant.
Header image: Photo by @ev, via Unsplash