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French government defends ‘anti-rioting’ bill

Protesters wearing yellow vests run from police during riots on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, 24 November 2018.
Protesters wearing yellow vests run from police during riots on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, 24 November 2018. Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes

French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner sought on Tuesday to convince lawmakers a set of proposals comprising what has become known as an ‘anti-rioting’ bill was not designed to criminalise the Yellow Vest movement that has raged since November.

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Castaner appeared before the Commission of Laws of the National Assembly, France’s lower house of parliament, to defend a bill that would “aim to prevent violence during demonstrations and to sanction those who cause it”.

“It is important for us to be able to ensure public order can defend itself with the best possible means, because a country like ours cannot have liberties without public order,” Castaner told lawmakers.

“It is not a bill against the Yellow Vests or against demonstrations, but against rioters.”

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said in early January that the government would take measures to counter violence at the Yellow Vest demonstrations, which have seen occasional rioting and injuries over the course of ten consecutive Saturdays.

One controversial measure of the proposed legislation would allow police to create a security perimeter around the site of a demonstration, which Castaner says would allow searches and seizures of weapons.

Another would immediately block certain individuals from taking part in demonstrations with a similar measure currently used to prevent football hooligans from entering stadiums.

One critical MP, Charles de Courson of the centre-right UDI party, said this measure was “probably unconstitutional”, “contrary to our international commitments” and “dangerous for public liberties”.

Castaner defended the measure, which he said would allow police “a tool to act quickly” and that it only concerned “the 100, 150, 200 people at the most who are responsible for violence, incite violence and systematically attack the security forces”.

The bill would also create a list of people forbidden from attending rallies and make it an offence to hide one’s face during a public demonstration.

MPs are set to debate the proposals next week.

Flash-balls

In the meantime, with an eleventh Saturday of demonstrations approaching, Castaner said security forces using flash-balls would be equipped with wearable cameras that would be “systematically” activated “in normal conditions” but not “in case of aggressions” of the security forces, the interior minister said.

Flash-balls, which have been in use since the 1990s as a non-lethal means for riot police to neutralise aggressive protesters, have been a subject of controversy since the Yellow Vest demonstrations in mid-November.

Castaner claimed four people sustained serious eye injuries due to their use, while activists claim that 17 people have lost an eye during police actions.

“In the 81 judicial investigations into the use of flash-balls, there are four losses of sight,” Castaner told lawmakers. “None is acceptable but each must be subject to an investigation to determine the reasons and conditions in which this to happen.”

The government said 2,000 demonstrators and 1,000 security forces have been injured since the start of protests.

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