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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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France’s Macron expected to announce easing of COVID rules in coming days - minister

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French President Emmanuel Macron will probably make an announcement on plans to relax COVID-19 restrictions in the next few days, Employment Minister Elisabeth Borne told BFM TV.

France, the eurozone's second biggest economy, started its third national lockdown at the end of March after suffering a spike in COVID-19 deaths and case numbers.

Macron is hoping the effects of that lockdown, along with an accelerated vaccination campaign, will improve France's COVID-19 figures, which would then allow certain businesses and leisure activities - such as outdoors dining - to reopen in mid May.

French schools reopened on Monday (26 April) after a three-week closure. Macron has said that while open-air bar and restaurant terraces may reopen in mid-May, indoor venues will not re-open before June, and only in regions where the COVID-19 figures have dropped sufficiently to allow this.

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French primary pupils return to school despite high COVID numbers

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Schoolchildren, wearing protective face masks, return to classes at Lepeltier primary school in La Trinite, near Nice, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in France, April 26, 2021.    REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
Schoolchildren, wearing protective face masks, are seen in a classroom at Lepeltier primary school in La Trinite, near Nice, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in France, April 26, 2021.    REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

France sent primary and nursery pupils back to school on Monday (26 April), the first phase of reopening after a three-week COVID-19 lockdown, even as daily new infections remained stubbornly high.

President Emmanuel Macron said a return to school would help fight social inequality, allowing parents who struggle to pay for childcare to get back to work, but trade unions warned that new infections would lead to a "torrent" of classroom closures.

In the upmarket Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, pupils wore face masks and rubbed disinfectant gel on their hands as they filed through the front door of the Achille Peretti primary school. A poster reminded the youngsters to stay a metre apart.

"They're young, they need an adult to help them, but most parents have a job and it's burdensome to ask them to do the school work," said teacher Elodie Passon.

Middle and high school pupils are due to return to the classroom next Monday, when the government will also lift domestic travel restrictions that have been in place nationwide since early April.

The open-air terraces of bars and restaurants, as well as some business and cultural venues, might be allowed to reopen from mid-May if the curbs have sufficiently slowed the spread of the coronavirus, the government has said.

Some doctors and public health experts have warned it may be too early to ease restrictions.

On Sunday (25 April), the seven-day average of new cases fell below 30,000 for the first time in over a month, from about 38,000 when the lockdown began, though the number of COVID-19 patients in critical care still hovered near a third-wave high of 5,984.

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‘Rally of anger’ in Paris: Thousands demand justice for Sarah Halimi

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More than 20,000 people attended a rally on Sunday (25 April) in central Paris to protest the recent decision by the Court of Cassationn, France highest court, to absolve the 2017 murderer of Sarah Halimi of criminal responsibility, because he took cannabis before he killed her, writes Yossi Lempkowicz.

The demonstration, which was held under tight security on Trocadero Square, in front of the Eiffel Tower, saw French Chief Rabbi Haim Korsia demand another “trial of facts”, even if it ends without a sentence.

Demonstrators gathered under the slogan “Without justice no Republic.’’  “No right without justice”, “Justice stoned?” or “Justice for Sarah Halimi” were written on placards held up in the crowd.

Rallies were also held in several other French cities but also abroad, in Tel Aviv, New York, Miami, Rome, The Hague, Brussels and London.

In April 2017, Kobili Traoré, a 27-year-old Muslim man, violently beat Sarah Halimi, his 65-year-old Jewish neighbor, while screaming “Allah Akbar” and other antisemitic slogans, before throwing her to her death out of the window of her third-floor apartment.

A lower court ruled that Traore was not criminally responsible for his actions because his intoxication with cannabis before the attack compromised his “discernment.”

Two weeks ago, the  Court of Cassation upheld this decision, ruling that the law, as it stands, does not distinguish between mental impairment due to disease, or the voluntary intake of narcotics. The decision sparked anger in the Jewish community and abroad.

Lawyers of Sarah Halimi’s family have announced that they would bring the case to the European Court of Human Rights and also to Israel’s courts.

French Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti tweted Sunday that he will present, following a demand of President Emmanuel Macron, a bill at the end of May to to plug a legal vacuum in French law regarding the consequences of the voluntary use of drugs.

Macron earlier this week called for a change in the law. “Deciding to take narcotics and then ‘going mad’ should, not in my view, remove your criminal responsibility,” he said in an interview with daily Le Faigaro.  He also expressed his support for Sarah Halimi’s family.

The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, who was present with many personalities at the demonstration, announced that a street will be named after Sarah Halimi in Paris.

“We all feel like Sarah Halimi’s soul. Her memory must be honoured. This is what we will do, there will be a Sarah Halimi street,” she said.

“There has been an anti-Semitic crime, we must demand justice for Sarah Halimi with a new law.  We must continue to fight against antisemitism. And our Republic must be there to fight this anti-Semitism”, she added.

Hundreds of demonstrators attended the protest in Tel Aviv outside the French embassy and another gathering was at Jerusalem’s Independence Park. They held up placards reading “Jewish lives matter,” “Justice for Sarah Halimi,” “Shame on France,” and other slogans.

Israeli Diaspora Affairs Minister Omer Yankelevich warned of the danger of allowing Halimi’s killer to walk free under such circumstances.

“From Tel Aviv to Paris, the Jewish people in Israel and around the world stand united in solidarity with the Halimi family and the French Jewish community,” the minister said.

“Sarah Halimi was murdered only because she was a Jew. Especially today, with the alarming rise in radical Islamic antisemitism throughout France, this court ruling sets a dangerous precedent that jeopardizes the security and well-being of our brothers and sisters in France,” she said, adding that Israel would do “all in its power to ensure the safety of all Jews” around the world.

In London, the British community held a demonstration outside the Embassy of France, joining a day of global protests by Jewish communities around the world.

Campaign Against Antisemitism Chief Executive, Gideon Falter, who organized the rally, said “During the Holocaust, French authorities were too often complicit in the genocide of French Jews. After the war, the nation vowed to defend what remained of its Jewish population. The decision of France’s highest court that torturing and throwing an elderly Jewish woman out of a window cannot be ascribed to following a decision by France’s highest court to spare an antisemitic murder from trial because he was high on cannabis at the time that he committed his crime.’’

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