The French government’s attempts to calm growing public fury over new legislation deemed a danger to civil liberties was challenged with a new wave of protests across the country on Saturday.
A largely peaceful march against the contested global security law and police violence in Paris degenerated after hooded and black-clad casseurs – vandals – disrupted the demonstration for the second weekend in a row. Clusters of hooded youths set fire to vehicles, smashed shop windows and hurled stones and molotov cocktails at police, who responded with water cannons and teargas.
About 90 demonstrations were organised across the rest of France, most of which passed off without major incident.
France is facing a number of explosive factors – a bitterly contested law, a debate over police violence, fears of terrorism after the beheading of a school teacher and the ongoing Covid-19 crisis – combining to provide what one commentator called “the wood, the petrol and the matches” to set the country alight.
The “liberty marches” – combined with the annual union day of protests against “unemployment and precariousness” held on the first Saturday in December – reflected ongoing fierce opposition to article 24 of the new security law. The article makes it punishable to publish photographs or videos identifying police or gendarmes with “intent” to cause psychological or physical harm, and is seen as a direct attack on press freedom.
The government has promised to completely rewrite article 24, but a report by United Nations experts last week expressed concern about other parts of the legislation that has already been passed by MPs in the Assemblée Nationale, describing it as “incompatible” with international law and human rights. The report expressed particular concern about giving police powers to monitor crowds with drones and facial recognition.
At the centre of the current conflagration, President Emmanuel Macron and his hardline interior minister Gérald Darmanin have engaged in a classic good-cop-bad-cop routine. Last week, Macron insisted France was not veering to the right: “France is not an authoritarian state. It is not Hungary or Turkey,” he said.
Increasingly stung by criticism from national and particularly international media that has accused him of pandering to Marine Le Pen’s core electorate, Macron spent over two hours answering questions directly on Brut, a video site popular with the young. During what some French press called “Operation Seduction”, he rejected the term “police violence”, which he said was being used as a political “manipulation”, but said, “There are police who are violent … but there are also people who are violent”, adding that there had to be “zero tolerance” for both.
Macron, who has faced criticism over his “separatism” law, aimed at reinforcing the country’s secular traditions and combating Islamist extremism, but seen as targeting the country’s wider Muslim community, also announced he would set up a “discrimination alert” site, adding: “Today, when the colour of our skin isn’t white, we are more often stopped and checked [by police] … which is unacceptable.”
France’s police unions were not seduced and threatened to stop arresting and checking people’s papers altogether.
Meanwhile, Darmanin maintained his support for the country’s police and gendarmes following accusations of violence, saying he “would not abandon them”. He also announced a government crackdown on 76 mosques suspected of “separatism” and being “breeding grounds of terrorism”, and the dissolution of the Collectif Contre l’Islamophobie en France, which he acccused of being a “dispensary of Islamic extremism”, a move criticised by Amnesty International. And he announced that 66 “radicalised foreigners” had been expelled from France, and more would be on their way.
Opinion polls shed no light on how the French feel, with answers to the question ‘Do you have confidence in the police?’ ranging from 37% to 60% positive. “Macron is triangulating; that means trying to pick up votes from the right and the left,” one political source, who did not want to be named, told the Observer. “It’s a very delicate and difficult balance, but today it’s not the French socialist party that represents the working class – it’s Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, and therein lies the problem.”
“The Gallic people have an ambivalence towards authority and towards the police, but want the state to protect them. It’s the one thing left the state can do for them. Everything else, socially, economically, has failed. We’re in a society where violence has become normal. Stress levels are so high even the slightest thing gets blown up out of all proportion. Today we have incidents of police violence, a controversial law, and a nation of people hyper-stressed by Covid: that’s the wood, the petrol and the matches to light the fire.”
William Drozdiak, a veteran foreign correspondent and author of The Last President of Europe, about Macron, said Macron was using a “classic political tactic”.
“When you recognise the majority of voters are to your right – centre right and far right – and your challenge is coming from there … you are going to follow policies you think are supported by the majority of the people. Getting tough on law and order is a classic move, and it’s generally seen as popular by the French public,” Drozdiak told the website Pandemonium U.
“This recent controversy over the law to protect the police was very poorly written and is going to be redrafted, which I think was the right thing to do … that I think will defuse the protests.”
Professor François Heisbourg, senior adviser for Europe at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a former French government adviser, dismissed the protests as “dog bites man” non-news.
“It’s about police brutality and ill-conceived legislation and certainly not as serious as the poll tax demonstrations in the UK in the 1980s or the Paras in Londonderry. The French like having demonstrations. That’s what they do. It’s not necessary to see a major crisis in the country every time.”
He added: “Britons go berserk if you try to give them identity cards. The French go berserk if you try to give them CCTV cameras. Rightwing people are unhappy. Left people are unhappy. It’s called democracy. This is a very basic civil liberties issue and there’s nothing extraordinary about it.”