Charmaine Manuel | Europe & Eurasia Fellow
A common theme in the global battle against COVID-19 is the struggle that governments face in balancing emergency measures with considerations for civil liberties. Throughout 2020, we have seen instances of rights being compromised to contain the pandemic or governments taking advantage of the pandemic to institute authoritarian changes. The most recent iteration of this phenomenon is currently taking place in France which faces a unique challenge in not only containing the virus but also responding to the threat of terrorism. After the brutal murder of Samuel Paty in October 2020, a series of bills, designed to restore order, have caused thousands of protestors to take to the streets in opposition to measures that pose a threat to civil liberties and freedom of the press, leading to the unjust targeting and vilification of Muslim communities.
The Global Security Law is causing great unrest among French citizens for two provisions that authorise increased surveillance of citizens (Article 22) and give police greater protection against public scrutiny (Article 24). Article 22, which would permit the police to use drone surveillance, was flagged by the United Nation’s Human Rights Commission as a measure that “has serious implications for the right to privacy, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression in the country.” Protestors held signs such as “Big Manu is watching you” equating the French President (Manu) with Orwell’s Big Brother.
In late December, privacy campaigners found favour with a French court which banned police from using drones to regulate protests. However, the future of Article 24, the contentious aspect of this bill remains uncertain. Article 24, prohibits the filming of police officers “with the aim of harming their physical or psychological integrity.” If it gains the force of law, there is immense potential for the police to act in this time of emergency with increased impunity and diminished accountability to the public. And in a year dominated by a global movement against police brutality, the consequences of this bill are grim, to say the least.
After Le Monde published an editorial criticising the constraints that Article 24 imposed on journalists, the Minister for the Interior exempted the press from this provision. Yet in its current state, the law would prevent bystanders from filming instances of police brutality. To put things into perspective, bystanders recording police violence (such as those filming George Floyd’s murder) would be under penalty of a one-year prison sentence and a maximum fine of €45,000.
As the law was being read, a video of a black man being assaulted in his home by police in Paris highlighted the dire consequences Article 24 could have for minorities that are routinely targeted by law enforcement. The footage from the premises, which shows the police barging into the man’s home and beating him, was distributed online where it sparked a wave of uproar and galvanised support against the article. If the law had passed before the attack, the video’s publication would have been illegal. Protests erupting over the horrific video led the government to backtrack on Article 24, which will now be rewritten, though it is unknown what will replace its current wording.
Within its anti-terrorism measures, the French government is also honing in on what it considers to be “Islamist separatism.” Even before the murder of Samuel Paty, Macron announced his vision to create an Islam “compatible with the values of the Republic.” The main focus of this project was to provide state funding to train and certify imams in France and to deal with social problems such as housing and poverty. What started off as a project to create a French brand of Islam has since taken a darker turn that could alienate and disillusion a whole generation of French Muslims. In early November, the French government dissolved the Collective Against Islamaphobia in France (CCIF), an NGO that works to combat discrimination against Muslims, claiming that the organisation “had consistently carried out Islamist propaganda”. Human Rights Watch described the move as a “heavy handed action” which could “make it harder for victims of anti-Muslim prejudice in France to seek appropriate redress and could leave others afraid to complain.”
The New York Times also reported on a culture of fear and hypervigilance in public schools where Muslim children were interrogated for “defending terrorism.” Additionally, in an anti-terrorism blitz, 76 mosques have been targeted and two were ordered to close, a move justified by the Minister for the Interior as an assault on “the breeding grounds of terrorism.”
Public opinion in France has shifted to the right and, with it, Macron. As France moves nearer to an election year in 2022, there is great pressure on the centrist Macron to appear tough in the face of terrorism to voters who might be swayed towards the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.
While the European Union (EU) is struggling to reign in assaults on human rights in Hungary and Poland, it is worrying to see France, a major EU power whose national mythos upholds respect for civic and individual rights, also succumbing to authoritarianism. In times of crisis, it is easy for governments to resort to heavy-handed measures to impose control. Nevertheless, a consideration for human rights needs to be at the heart of emergency policies even during times of national security. Democracies are fragile when pushed to their limits and iron-fisted measures adopted during times of crisis can leave a lasting legacy on rights and freedoms.
Charmaine Manuel is the Europe & Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.