France: when police intimidation is in the frame

Article 24 Its article 24 would, on the other hand, ban the diffusion of “an image of the face or any other element identifying an officer of the…

Article 24

Its article 24 would, on the other hand, ban the diffusion of “an image of the face or any other element identifying an officer of the national police or gendarmerie, other than their individual serial number, when they are on official duty and where the “intention is to cause physical and psychological harm”.

This measure has to be seen in the context of four things:

  • The official philosophy behind French policing which automatically creates a confrontational relationship rather than one characterised by a police service that serves the law and the public;
  • The way in which terrorism and now the epidemic have been exploited to shield government decision-taking and practice from proper public scrutiny with the conversion of emergency law provisions into ordinary statute powers, the increasing use of legislation by decree and the habituation of the public to decision-taking on the epidemic by Macron and his immediate entourage in private;
  • The new guidance on the maintenance of public order issued by the Ministry of the Interior on 16 September that already dramatically reinforced control over those reporting on police activities;
  • The continued refusal to create properly independent complaint procedures when it comes to police activities, all these being left in the hands of bodies within the police system itself or those, like the statutory Défenseur de droits, who may investigate but cannot take any action over their findings.

Put that together and you have an approach by the French state which has both provoked and permitted police violence as a general practice and has meant that the exposure of this has been largely in the hands of vulnerable and poorly equipped volunteer civil rights observatories and those independent journalists and members of the public who are prepared to take the risks – already high – of themselves being the victims of police violence. Their publications have rarely been mainstream and usually rely on the social networks.

Darmanin’s public order guidance already separates these “independent” sources out from those whose material can be subjected to editorial control within the established media.

The carte de presse

French journalism benefits from a strong law passed way back in 1881. It has been the basis for its freedom to work for a century and a half. However, it also offers a definition of who is a journalist that can exclude new independent and freelance style practitioners (freelance-style because strictly speaking French employment law does not accept the status of freelance). Those who are employed in the mainstream media on news-gathering can have access to a French official carte de presse which comes with a host of benefits such as free access to all the public museums, chateaux and galleries where the general public often has to pay a hefty entrance fee.

The new guidance allows “journalists who possess a carte de presse, accredited with the authorities” somewhat greater freedom to report than others, but still provides that “the misdemeanour created by the fact of remaining in a group after an order (by the police to leave, CM) allows of no exception, and that includes for journalists and members of associations”. The latter being those civil liberties observers.

All four of France’s journalist unions, each one affiliated to one or other of the main national trade union federations, have opposed the law. Their joint statement, backed by the country’s civil liberties bodies, warns:

“In reality, diffusing an image, particularly a live one, will be virtually impossible. Just filming or photographing will lead to arrests and violence by the police, as has too often already been the case. Clearly, it is not only journalists, photo-journalists, documentary film makers and members of citizens’ observatories who are targeted by this, but anyone taking photos with a smart phone, particularly during demonstrations or social protests. How can one characterise the intention? How can one take the risk that someone else will not use these images maliciously?

“Self-censorship will be massive in the media and across social media platforms. On the other hand, the police will be able to film or photograph the public at their leisure. The deputies of the LREM (the governing party of Macron, CM) who support this proposition are pursuing the desire of the government to muzzle freedom of information and expression and through that the right to demonstrate.”


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