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Stopping the decline of civil liberties in France

EU Reporter Correspondent

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Recently, French officials announced their decision to rewrite sections of the country’s global security law. The move was announced by parliamentary leaders from the ruling majority dominated by President Emmanuel Macron's La République en Marche (LREM) party, writes Josef Sjöberg.

The controversial sections of the bill known as Article 24 would make it an offense to film and identify police officers carrying out their duties. As per the amendment’s language, the new version of the law would make it an offense to show the face or identity of any officer on duty "with the aim of damaging their physical or psychological integrity". Other sections like Articles 21 and 22 of the proposed law delineate “mass surveillance" protocols. 

The proposed changes have been the subject of immense criticism both at home and abroad since they were first filed on 20 October. Critics point to the unprecedented expansion of government surveillance over its citizens and the risk of police and security forces operating with impunity.

What is ironic about the proposal is that it threatens to undermine the very thing it allegedly seeks to protect. The impetus for this law was the tragic killing of French teacher Samuel Paty on 16 October by a young Muslim man in retaliation for Paty showing his class a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad. The incident prompted President Emmanuel Macron’s commitment to defend freedom of expression and civil liberties. In the name of upholding these values, however, Macron’s government along with members of his party have introduced new legislation that effectively restricts them. 

Concerns over the security law are not merely theoretical. A significant uptick in police violence in France has shown what trends are possible. One incident that has spread like wildfire across the news platforms was the brutal beating of a man, one Michel Zecler, by four police officers in Paris. While the Interior Minister promptly ordered the suspension of the officers involved, the incident sparked nationwide outrage further fueling the flames of animosity toward the police.

The attack on Zecler came just days after a major police operation took place to dismantle a migrant camp in the country’s capital. Video footage of the incident showed police using aggressive force as well as tear gas to disperse the illegal encampment. Two separate probes related to the camp dismantling have since been launched by officials. One of the flashpoints of police violence has in fact been opposition to the security bill itself. In the final days of November, activists organized marches all over the country to protest the proposed amendments. At least eighty-one individuals were arrested by police and several injuries at the hands of officers were also reported. At least one of the victims was Syrian freelance photographer, Ameer Al Halbi, 24, who was injured in his face while covering the demonstration.

The attack on Al Halbi and others seemed to confirm fears of the security bill’s opponents as a primary concern has been the ability to maintain press freedom under the new statutes. Indeed, the trend of police violence has, in the eyes of many citizens, been gaining momentum for the better part of 2020. The wide spectrum opposition to the security law is spurred by the recent memory of the Cedric Chouviat incident in January. Chouviat, 42 at the time of his death, was confronted by police near the Eiffel Tower while on a delivery job. Alleging that Chouviat was talking on his phone while driving, officers eventually detained him and applied a chokehold to subdue him. Despite Chouviat’s repeated cries that he could not breathe, officers kept him pinned down. Chouviat died shortly afterward.

Observers have noted that the introduction of the bill has been yet another regrettable move toward the erosion of France's “soft power” policy. Back in 2017, France was found to be the global leader in welding influence through appeal rather than aggression. This improvement has been largely attributed to the moderate leadership of the centrist Macron. It was hoped this alternate approach to power would also be applied by the French president in domestic policy. Unfortunately, for years the distrust of the citizenry toward police forces has only been growing, as the use of violence by officers has become increasingly common in the French Republic.          

With the incredible public backlash against proposed amendments, it is clear that the additions to the security bill are a step in the wrong direction. A democratic and free nation like France, cannot, and must not adopt policies that explicitly limit the accountability of its security forces, invade personal privacy, and restrict journalistic activity. Macron and his team must reconsider the bill and amend the proposals. Only then can France’s leadership begin to address the problem of police brutality for what it is and ensure the continuity and flourishing of French civil liberties.

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French city of Nice asks tourists to stay away amid COVID surge

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The mayor of Nice in southern France called on Sunday (21 February) for a weekend lockdown in the area to reduce the flow of tourists as it battles a sharp spike in coronavirus infections to triple the national rate, writes Geert De Clercq.

The Nice area has France’s highest COVID-19 infection rate, with 740 new cases per week per 100,000 residents, according to Covidtracker.fr.

“We need strong measures that go beyond the nationwide 6 p.m. curfew, either tighter curfew, or a partial and time-specific lockdown. A weekend lockdown would make sense,” Mayor Christian Estrosi said on franceinfo radio.

Health Minister Olivier Veran said on Saturday the government would decide this weekend on tightening virus control measures in the Mediterranean city.

Before ordering a second national lockdown in November, the government imposed curfews some cities and closed restaurants in Marseille, but it has generally refrained from regional measures due to protest from local politicians and businesses.

“We do not rule out local lockdowns,” government spokesman Gabriel Attal said on LCI television.

He added that the trend in new cases was not good in recent days and that there was no case for loosening curfew.

“The weather is nice, everybody rushes to come here. A weekend lockdown would put a stop to that, without halting economic activity in the city,” Estrosi said.

Estrosi said infection rates had leapt due to the massive inflow of tourists over the Christmas holiday. International flights to the city had jumped from 20 a day before Christmas to 120 over the holiday - all this without people having virus tests in their country of origin or on arrival.

“We will be happy to receive lots of tourists this summer, once we win this battle, but it is better to have a period while we say ‘do not come here, this is not the moment’. Protecting the people of Nice is my priority,” he said.

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West must help vaccinate Africa's healthworkers now, says Macron

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Europe and the United States should without delay send enough COVID-19 vaccine doses to Africa to inoculate the continent’s health-care workers or risk losing influence to Russia and China, French President Emmanuel Macron (pictured) said on Friday (19 February), writes Michel Rose.

Earlier this week, Macron urged Europe and the United States to allocate up to 5% of their current vaccine supplies to developing countries in an effort to avoid an unprecedented acceleration of global inequality.

Addressing the Munich Security Conference after U.S. President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Macron said the first step should send 13 million doses to Africa - enough, he said, to inoculate all its healthworkers.

“If we announce billions today to supply doses in 6 months, 8 months, a year, our friends in Africa will, under justified pressure from their people, buy doses from the Chinese and the Russians,” Macron told the conference. “And the strength of the West will be a concept, and not a reality.”

Macron said 13 million doses amount to 0.43% of all vaccine shots ordered by Europe and America.

Group of Seven leaders earlier in the day reaffirmed their support to the most vulnerable countries.

Oxfam France urged the G7 countries to break the monopoly held by their pharmaceutical companies. That would be the “fastest, fairest and most effective way to boost vaccine production so that countries don’t have to compete for doses,” the charity said in a statement.

The World Health Organization on Thursday urged nations producing COVID-19 vaccines not to distribute them unilaterally but to donate them to the global COVAX scheme to ensure fairness.

Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates told the conference the politically sensitive gap between vaccinating people in wealthy and developing countries could narrow to half a year if authorities take proper action.

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France's BNP to stop financing firms farming deforested land in the Amazon

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France’s largest bank BNP Paribas pledged on Monday (15 February) to stop financing firms producing or buying either beef or soybeans cultivated on land in the Amazon cleared or converted after 2008, write Sudip Kar-Gupta and Matthieu Protard.

The lender also said it would encourage clients not to buy or produce beef or soy farmed in the Cerrado, a vast tropical savanna eco-region covering 20% of Brazil, only financing those which adopt a strategy of zero deforestation by 2025.

Environmental campaign groups said BNP Paribas’ move sent a strong signal to companies trading commodities in the region, but pressed for faster action.

“Financial institutions exposed to the agricultural sector in Brazil must contribute to this fight against deforestation. This is the case for BNP Paribas,” the bank said in a statement.

Soy and beef are two of the largest drivers of global deforestation. Population growth and rapidly expanding middle classes in countries like China have fueled an explosion in demand for soy and increases in consumption of meat and dairy.

Some scientists warn the Amazon forest, which spans nine countries, is hurtling towards a death spiral as deforestation continues apace. An area of Amazon rainforest the size of Israel was felled last year, according to Amazon Conservation.

Half of the Cerrado has already been cleared and is one of the planet’s most threatened ecosystems, four environmental NGOs said in a joint statement.

“BNP Paribas is giving traders five more years to clear forests with impunity,” Klervi Le Guenic of Canopee Forets Vivantes said.

BNP and other European lenders including Credit Suisse and Dutch bank ING committed last month to stop financing trade in crude oil from Ecuador after pressure from activists aiming to protect the Amazon.

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