Tens of Thousands in France Protest Racist Security and Anti-Muslim Laws

Demonstrations continued across France this past weekend, for the third week in a row. The Macron government is pushing for a “security law” that would criminalize filming police and an “anti-separatism” law that is nothing less than legalized Islamophobia.
  • Scott Cooper | 
  • December 14, 2020

For the third consecutive weekend, France was wracked by demonstrations across the country. The government’s proposed Global Security Law includes antidemocratic articles that would give the police new tools to suppress protests. The government has also introduced a racist, anti-Muslim bill known as the “separatist law.” Cynically, the latter has been officially renamed the law “bolstering the respect of the principles of the Republic” — and the French National Assembly will begin debating it next month.

The Global Security Law was introduced in late October and has been the focus of protesters and media outlets since last month. The separatist law was sent to parliament on December 9, the 115th anniversary of the 1905 passage of France’s law on the separation of church and state, considered a cornerstone of the French republic. It should be noted that this “separation” in France is the opposite of that in the United States. In the United States, it is meant to keep the government out of religion. In France, it is meant to keep religion out of the “public square,” and has been used — especially in recent years — to justify an ongoing, concerted assault on Muslims throughout France. This has included measures such as bans on wearing headscarves in public schools. 

The government’s aims cannot be fully understood without considering both laws — together referred to as the lois liberticides (freedom-destroying laws). The separatist law is part and parcel of painting French Muslims as the “other” — which in turn justifies the police brutality routinely unleashed in their neighborhoods. These two laws are both part of the daily attacks by the French state and its security forces that target the poor, immigrants, and people of color — especially Black Africans and Muslims from France’s former colonies in North Africa. 

The government claims the separatist law has nothing to do with Islam as a religion, but only “Islamist separatism.” Yet, in an interview with Le Monde last week, Prime Minister Jean Castex said the quiet things out loud. Asked to give examples of things the government needed to address with the law, Castex pointed to the need to respond to “fight against … excesses and attacks on the values of the Republic that are not acceptable.” And what are these “excesses and attacks”? Castex cited only examples linked to Islam: 

How can we accept that in a city in the North, for example, a program for homework help influences children so that they refuse to play with non-Muslims, or sing [Koranic] suras while covering their ears during music lessons? How can we accept that in Seine-Saint-Denis, a cultural association preaches hatred of the Republic under the pretext of taking care of children who are not attending school? How can we accept, again, that in the Bouches-du-Rhône, a sports club is infected by separatists to the point where one refuses to bow to his opponent during a judo match because one can only bow down before Allah?

The Global Security Law

And what of the Global Security Law? It is a direct assault on civil liberties, buttressing the “confrontational” approach to policing protest. As La Quadrature du Net (Squaring the Net), a French freedom-of-speech advocacy group, describes it, that approach depends

above all on dissuading people from taking part in demonstrations, whether by exhausting participants psychologically (herding them into enclosures, blocking or filtering ways in and out, tear gas or pepper spray, searches, shoving them around) or by outright physical violence (rubber bullets, grenades, charging them). … [It] treats demonstrators not as individuals but as dehumanized ‘flows’ that must only be channeled, misdirected, held, or dispersed.

The law would provide the French police with three new technological tools. Article 21 allows the cops to use “mobile cameras” and cameras mounted in French streets to film their interventions so they can access the images they record, send them to command posts in real time, and identify protesters. Article 22 permits the deployment of drones to monitor public spaces. Article 24 criminalizes the public from recording a “police operation” and releasing the images “with the aim of harming [a cop’s] physical or mental integrity.”

In short, the law provides for massive ground and air surveillance and a ban on documenting police action. Media organizations throughout France have denounced Article 24 as a threat to freedom of the press from the moment it was proposed in November.

Another Weekend of Demonstrations

In the latest response from the French people, thousands again took to the streets this past weekend — despite an effort to demobilize protesters by the main organizing group, the Stop the Global Security Law Coordination, because of “security conditions” and threats of violent police repression. That demobilizing effort won the support of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the social democratic party La France Insoumise (Unbowed France). But nearly 10,000 marched in Paris alone, making their way along the streets between Place du Châtelet and the Place de la République behind a large banner reading “Separatism, Global security: Stop the repressive laws, Stop Islamophobia.”

Parisian youth were a major part of the protest, which was called by antiracist organizations, families of victims of police violence, the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), feminist groups, and the United Front of Immigrants and Poor Neighborhoods. As one speaker — an antiracist activist — told demonstrators, the two laws being protested are aimed at “controlling the population, especially those who have suffered oppression for decades.”

The convergence of the struggles against police brutality and Islamophobia had, until Saturday’s demonstration in Paris, “been largely ignored, or even rejected, by part of the leadership of the movement against the Global Security Law,” as noted by Révolution Permanente, the sister site of Left Voice in France. “Against all expectations, the thousands of demonstrators … showed that [connecting the two fights] was essential and could mobilize widely despite many obstacles.”

Those obstacles included a repressive force of more than 6,000 police officers and gendarmes. There were 140 arrests, many of which the cops claimed were “preventive.” Journalists were forced to show identification to enter the demonstration area. Cops repeatedly assaulted protesters with bludgeons, claiming they were preventing the formation of breakoff “black blocs.” At the march’s close, the Place de la République was cleared with tear gas, water cannons, and a violent charge by the police.

In the days leading up to the most recent demonstrations, pressure on the French government to revise the most freedom-destroying elements of the Global Security Law became too much to bear.

The UN Chimes In

Typically, public statements by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights are directed at the “usual suspects” — especially open dictatorships. It’s not every day that Michelle Bachelet, the former president of Chile currently holding that UN position, calls out one of the world’s “democracies.” But that’s exactly what she did on December 9.

“The law has to be discussed by the French people,” Bachelet told reporters. “But it’s Article 24, the one we are really concerned about. And that’s why we are mentioning that it should be reviewed and should be, I guess, withdrawn.”

A few days before Bachelet’s statement, five independent “special reporters” asked by the UN human rights council to review the law concluded that it was “incompatible with international law and human rights.”

“Video images of police abuses captured by the public,” wrote the experts, “play an essential role in the overseeing of public institutions, which is fundamental in a country that respects the rule of law.” They also noted the “serious implications” of using drones “for the right to privacy, the freedom to gather peacefully and freedom of expression” in France.

In fact, only a few days after the lower chamber of France’s parliament gave its initial approval to the bill, images surfaced of three French cops brutally beating Michel Zecler, a Black music producer. That was followed by demonstrations across the country on Saturday, November 28, in more than 70 cities, including more than 100,000 in Paris — representing the entire political and trade union Left as well as civil rights organizations. The actions that day were called after French cops violently expelled refugees from the Place de la République on November 23. The Zecler beating fueled the fire, and the protests were met by more police violence. Such a video would be illegal under the proposed law.

Macron’s Response

Pressure from the UN and the European Union, along with the ongoing demonstrations, has pushed French President Emmanuel Macron into a corner, which is why his ruling party has now pledged to “rewrite” at least the article that criminalizes taking pictures of cops. Meanwhile, Macron himself is trying to resurrect his public image by addressing the crisis with his proposal for a series of planned “consultations” in January that will bring together “stakeholders” to address police “misconduct.” The president is straddling the fence between organizations criticizing him for the security law and the police unions that have denounced him for even uttering the words “police violence.”

Macron promised, in a letter to a police union official, that he will “participate personally,” citing an “urgent need … to strengthen the bond of trust between the French and the forces of law and order. But also to give the police and gendarmes the means to meet their commitments and the expectations of our citizens.” He outlined seven key areas for reform: police training, supervision, resources, the filming of on-duty police, inspections, staffing levels, and relations between the police and the public.

The entire enterprise is a ruse, no more likely to result in real changes than the promises of the city council in Minneapolis to “dismantle” the police after its cops murdered George Floyd on May 25. Since then, in a dizzying series of backtracking, it ended up on December 10 voting divert a mere 4.5 percent of the $179 million police budget to other city services, leaving the city’s cops to continue their assaults on poor communities and people of color hampered only by a ban on chokeholds and a revamped use-of-force policy.

As for the Macron meetings, they will begin less than two months after the Interior Ministry published its “White Paper on Internal Security” that spelled out some 200 measures to make the cops more “effective” and aimed at “rebuilding” their “conditions of trust” with the populace. The White Paper completely ignored police violence, mistrust of the cops, and systemic racism. No one expects these topics to be addressed in Macron’s discussions about police reform.

What’s at Stake in the Fight?

The fight against the two laws promises to continue. Révolution Permanente issued several demands and calls to action on December 3 around which to organize the deepening anger over the French government’s increasingly authoritarian offensive. First is the total withdrawal of the Global Security Law, not only Article 24. “It is not through discussions and negotiations on the content of the law that we will obtain a victory, but through a determined mobilization in the streets for its total withdrawal.” Then there are the demands for the withdrawal of the separatist law and all Islamophobic and racist laws.

This means expanding the mobilizations against the Global Security Law to include the government’s entire security offensive, full of racism and police violence, described as “part of a broader sequence of policies … marked in particular by the repressive and catastrophic management of the health crisis.” The movement must also fight against the Research Programming Law that “provides for imprisonment in retaliation for student mobilizations.”

Right now in France, the self-organization of the working class, of immigrants and people of color, and of people in the poor neighborhoods against state terror and Islamophobia is an urgent issue. It’s time for the trade unions to join the protesters in the streets and take up this fight as their own, relentlessly. Assaults on the democratic rights of protesters are assaults on the democratic rights of everyone in France. Demonization of Muslims under the guise of honoring the principles of France’s bourgeois republic is a prelude to repression on a much wider scale. Rights are best defended through the methods of class struggle, and that is what is on the agenda in France today.

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Scott Cooper

Scott Cooper

Scott is a writer, editor, and longtime socialist activist who lives in the Boston area.

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