France's U-turn on contentious security Bill puts spotlight on police violence

The authorities have been worried for some time about the rising level of violence in the country. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON - French President Emmanuel Macron's ruling party announced on Nov 30 that it will completely rewrite a draft plan that would have curbed the freedom to share images identifying police officers, after large protests over the weekend against police violence.

Here's a closer look at the issue.

What's the story

It was a "strategic retreat". After months of insisting on the need to introduce a new security law which included a curious provision banning people from sharing pictures of police officers for "malicious purposes", President Emmanuel Macron bowed to outcry from civil liberties groups and ordered his government to rewrite the entire provisions of the draft law.

"It is neither a withdrawal nor a suspension but a total rewriting of the text", in order to remove 'misunderstandings and doubts', said Mr Christophe Castaner, the leader of the ruling La Republique en Marche party.

Although Mr Macron tried to blame his ministers for the debacle - "the situation they put me in could have been avoided", he told a journalist - the episode has dealt a blow to a president whose popularity is already in the doldrums, and turned the spotlight on the activities of the French police, precisely what Mr Macron sought to avoid.

Why it matters

The authorities have been worried for some time about the rising level of violence in the country. This started with the so-called Yellow Vest movement of countryside protesters which intermittently paralysed France's main cities for much of last year, but then extended to almost endemic vandalism in the deprived public housing estates.

France has a history of heavy policing: the gendarmerie, which is often called in to suppress riots, is a military force dedicated to imposing domestic order, and the CRS, a 13,000-strong police reserve force created after World War II with the specific objective of riot control, is famous for what police officers gingerly refer to as "robust tactics".

The widespread availability of digital cameras has meant, however, that almost any altercation between the police and demonstrators is now filmed. The clips are uploaded to the internet within hours and are often used by demonstrators to discredit the police.

The authorities claim that many of the clips are doctored with the intent of blaming the police for violence. There have also been instances where police officers have been identified from pictures and then subjected to personal attacks, and their families harassed.

Under the new security law, the government wanted to ban the circulation of such pictures, if the objective was to undermine the authority and credibility of the police. But the entire effort was bungled. The legislation was sloppily drafted, and the authorities failed to explain that they were not proposing to ban the taking of any pictures during riots, but merely their publication. They also failed to explain when a publication ban would apply.

But most importantly, the government failed to reassure not only the public but also legislators that the measure will not end up shielding the police from any accountability.

The release of a recently made video showing police officers beating to a pulp a youth of African descent did not help matters. Neither did the fact that Prime Minister Jean Castex and Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin were unable to specify what measures they will take to ensure that police use only the minimum of necessary force to disperse rioters.

What's next

After more than 130,000 people throughout France marched in protest over the past weekend, President Macron had no option but to withdraw the Bill. The promise is that a new provision is about to be drafted, and may be resubmitted to parliament either this month, or at the start of the new year.

The parliament is also poised to approve provisions which will stiffen jail sentences against those convicted of attacking police officers, thereby offering the force some support.

But with only 16 months remaining before the next presidential elections in which Mr Macron wants to campaign on his law and order credentials, the episode is an acute embarrassment; the president has infuriated liberals, but has also not reassured voters who believe in strengthening the hand of the government.

The debacle has also left relations between the police and the public in France as troubled as ever.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.