Protests over security bill in France draw tens of thousands

People protest a security bill at the Place de la Republique in Paris on Nov 28, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS (NYTIMES) - Tens of thousands of people took to the streets across France on Saturday (Nov 28) to protest a security bill that would restrict sharing images of police officers and strengthen government surveillance tools, the latest sign that anger over recent cases of police violence is galvanising opposition.

Media organisations and human rights groups held rallies in dozens of cities including Paris, Bordeaux and Lyon. All raised alarm about the new bill, saying it could curb freedom of the press and limit police accountability.

"Rather than trying to solve problems, this law seeks to cover up blunders," said Mr Nicolas Gonnot, a 50-year-old computer engineer who demonstrated in Paris.

Tensions in France have been rising over President Emmanuel Macron's broader security policies, which opponents say increasingly restrict civil liberties. The frictions have grown in part in the wake of a string of Islamist terrorist attacks over the past few months.

Many of the demonstrators consider the new security bill a drift towards repression in government policy and further evidence of the government's slide to the right.

One of the most disputed elements of the bill is a provision that would criminalise the broadcasting of "the face or any other identifying element" of on-duty police officers if the goal is to "physically or mentally harm" them.

The government has said that this provision is intended to protect police from online abuses. But critics argue that the wording is so open-ended that it could dissuade citizens and journalists from filming the police and holding them accountable.

Another provision of the bill authorises the use of drones to film citizens in public and allow footage from body cameras worn by police to be livestreamed to authorities.

The bill has brought widespread condemnation from the French press, human right organisations, as well as from the country's defender of rights, an independent ombudsman that monitors civil and human rights.

The ombudsman said the bill posed "considerable risks" to the freedom of information and the right to privacy.

The bill, which the lower house of Parliament passed this week, still needs to be considered by the Senate and the government has faced mounting pressure to rewrite or remove key provisions from it.

Mr Hugues Renson, a powerful lawmaker in Mr Macron's parliamentary majority, told the newspaper Le Figaro: "When there is so much resistance to a measure, it is sometimes better to give it up than to persist."

In another sign that the government could be preparing to backtrack, Prime Minister Jean Castex announced last Friday that he would appoint an independent commission to help redraft the disputed provision on the broadcasting of images of police officers.

The protests in Paris thundered from the Place de la République, a large plaza in the centre of the French capital, as a tide of people waving signs reading, "Who watches the watchmen?" or "Democracy under attack".

Standing among the crowd, Ms Dominique Beaufour, a 63-year-old retiree, said the situation was "getting worse" in France, with increased and unchecked police activity in daily life.

Although the protests in Paris were mostly peaceful, some violent clashes erupted later in the day between demonstrators and security forces. Some protesters smashed shop windows and set cars and a cafe on fire in Paris, while the police responded by firing tear gas and using water cannons.

"They've crossed a line," said Mr Laurent Sebaux, a protester and supporter of Mr Macron who added that the bill represented a betrayal of the liberal ideals that Mr Macron defended when he rose to power in 2017.

The demonstration in Paris took place on the same plaza where, only days earlier, the police violently cleared out a temporary migrant camp. It also came on the heels of a nationwide outcry over images showing police officers repeatedly pummelling a Black music producer for several minutes.

Opponents of the bill seized upon the footage to argue that, by placing restrictions on sharing videos of police officers, the new bill would prevent such violence from being reported.

Authorities said that four police officers were detained for questioning last Friday over the beating of the music producer and were suspended from duty.

In a statement on his Facebook page last Friday, Mr Macron said the images of the beating "shame us", adding that "France must never resign itself to violence or brutality, no matter where it comes from".

As French authorities grapple with growing accusations of structural racism and brutality in policing, Mr Macron said that he had asked the government to come up with proposals to restore the public's confidence in the police - a demand he has already made twice this year.

"In 2015, we hugged the police," said Ms Beaufour, referring to the wave of solidarity for police officers that emerged after the 2015 terror attacks. "Now, we run away from them."

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