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French lower house approves 'anti-rioter' bill

Protesters throw tear gas canisters back at police at Place de la Republique in Paris, 2 February 2019.
Protesters throw tear gas canisters back at police at Place de la Republique in Paris, 2 February 2019. AFP/Zakaria Abdelkafi
4 min

French MPs in the National Assembly have approved controversial security measures in response to months of violence on the fringes of Yellow Vest protests. The vote on Monday came in the context of sustained polarisation regarding the protests and an unprecedented political landscape.

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The legislation still has to pass the upper house and be approved by the constitutional council.

Philippe Moreau Chevrolet, communication specialist at the Paris Institute of Political Studies

After heated debate, French MPs in the National Assembly approved new rules for public demonstrations that allow extended bag searches, make it an offense to wear face coverings, oblige vandals to pay for damages and, most controversially, ban certain individuals from attending rallies.

On the eve of the vote, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner insisted the bill was meant to protect demonstrators, journalists, security forces and institutions at occasionally violent rallies, and that it would only be used to target a small number of rioters.

“This law does not aim to forbid, on the contrary, it aims to protect demonstrations,” Castaner wrote on Facebook. “Too often, a few brutes put our right to demonstrate in peril.”

Castaner cited government estimates that 1,200 security and rescue personnel as well as 1,900 demonstrators had been injured since the start of the Yellow Vest movement in mid-November.

He added that town centres have been pillaged around the country, people have been unable to reach their workplaces and that some 1,900 stores have been attacked in the French capital.

Loss of authority in public sphere

It is a common reaction for France’s government and lawmakers to extend the means of security and law enforcement officials in times of social unrest.

“When public order is threatened, there is a habit in France to pass a new law to reinforce whatever power the police or judges have,” says Philippe Moreau Chevrolet, who teaches political communication at the Paris Institute of Political Studies.

“Usually [such proposals] are tempered by human rights activists, and we reach an equilibrium between the necessities of public order and of human rights. But we don’t seem to be reaching that point anymore.”

Despite the removal of proposals to create security perimeters around demonstrations and draw up a permanent list of banned individuals, left-wing parties still challenged the legislation on constitutional grounds.

Even some lawmakers in President Emmanuel Macron’s majority said they would vote against or in abstention, showing the trouble amongst the political classes in facing the polarised view France has of the situation.

“Half the population supports the Yellow Vests and thinks that everything the government does is suspicious, and the other half would be more in favour of having a quiet and calm situation restored,” Moreau Chevrolet says.

“For the moment, nobody can have any authority any more in the public sphere to pass any law without contestation.”

Changing political landscape

The bill has become inseparable from French President Emmanuel Macron’s response to the Yellow Vest movement, which has also included measures to boost spending power, a two-month campaign of town hall debates and the controversial use of anti-riot weapons.

But the bill itself had already been tabled months before the protests began by the right-wing opposition party Les Républicains – a fact that shows the extent to which Macron’s administration is able to appropriate the policies of its rivals and leave them little place on the political scene.

“Any initiative that they have, that the government is able to take on board and defend, is like one more nail in their coffin,” Moreau Chevrolet says. “Macron did exactly the same thing to the left, incorporating a lot of left-wing people and political ideas.”

As such, Macron has been able to occupy the political space previously shared among centre-left and centre-right parties, with only the hard-left France Unbowed and far-right National Rally forming the visible opposition.

“Macron’s aim is really to make the political spectrum empty except at the extremes, with him being the only moderate element at the centre,” Moreau Chevrolet says.

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