France - Police

Amnesty report slams France's 'illegal tactics' to silence dissent

French CRS special police force with anti-riot weapons during demonstrations
French CRS special police force with anti-riot weapons during demonstrations Valery HACHE / AFP

According to a report by human rights watchdog Amnesty International, French authorities are using "illegal tactics" to suppress demonstrations and silence critics of a controversial security bill ahead of a vote on the legislation in the French Senate in March. 

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"French authorities are using illegal tactics to crush protests and silence critics of the dangerous ‘Global Security Bill’ which will be voted on in the French Senate next month," Amnesty International said on Monday. 

The rights group and other civil liberties advocates maintain the proposed law would restrict the ability of people to circulate images of police violence, while at the same time extending the surveillance powers of police through the use of CCTV and drones.

Monday's report was researched and compiled by Amnesty International’s French branch but it has taken on an international aspect in what would normally have been a more home-based, local angle.

RFI's David Coffey spoke to Amnesty International senior researcher, Dr Marco Perolini:

DC: Why did Amnesty International decide to go global with the report?

"There are two main reasons. In this report, we document the arbitrary arrests of protesters against the global security bill. The global security bill is a very controversial [law] that was adopted by the French parliament in November, and this bill has a very problematic human rights provision. It has provisions that are very problematic in light of human rights.

"So when the bill was actually adopted in November, there was a wave of protests across France. And because of the human rights concerns that we have around the bill, we have focused on this specific protest in December.

"Then there is another reason, which is the long standing human rights concerns that we have documented in France, regarding policing, public assemblies, and also regarding the use of criminal law to silence dissent.

"In France there have been big social movements, the Yellow Vests in 2018 and 2019, then followed by another big movement against the reform of pensions. In those two years we have documented many, many instances in which the authorities have used problematic laws to arrest protesters arbitrarily, and then prosecute them on very problematic grounds.

"So this is what you witnessed on 12 December, in context of the protest against the global security bill is just a continuation of a trend that we've been monitoring and documenting for a long time."

Rock-bottom police morale to blame?

DC: Looking at things from a police perspective, there is a general malaise within the French force. There has been a significant spike in suicide among officers, many citing burnout since the 2015 terrorist attacks. This hasn't been helped by police working overtime when dealing with the ongoing protests of the Yellow Vests.

Has this been taken into consideration when looking into the reasons behind the arbitrary nature of arrests and aggressive response when policing protests?

"I think this is certainly something that as Amnesty, we didn't really look specifically into these. But I think this is an element that exists. And it's not only during the yellow vests, but also after the 2015 attacks.

"And the threats to national security, we often heard when we talk to French authorities that indeed, police forces were overstretched because of the context in which they were a threat to national security, but also in increased social movement activity.

"However, we don't think that the abuses that have been documented since 2019 by Amnesty and also by other NGOs, isn't really [caused by] structural issues that exist in the police in response to protests in France when it comes, for example, to the use of dangerous weapons that we have documented.

"There are weapons that the police are using, in a very problematic way. Like dangerous weapons - rubber bullets, grenades and other weapon.

"But there is also a structural problem with the way in which the police, police protests and where are arrested arbitrarily."

Pre-emptive strike or police propaganda?

DC: I was at the demonstration before it kicked off. It took me around to two hours to get out of the perimeter that they had locked down.

It was a very tense atmosphere. I was there with my son at the time. But by the time we got home, television images from the protests on the 12th of December, showed the riot police officers displaying weapons that they had confiscated from protesters before the demonstration had even begun.

Things like screwdrivers that had been sharpened to a point, knives, batons. We can’t just write that off as propaganda from the police, can we?

"Well it depends. You refer to the way in which the protests have been [managed], the preventive, pre-emptive police actions to ensure security in protests.

"So for example, and we haven't, we haven't seen these practices much before. So where police actually proceed to stop and search protesters…in order to ensure that no one goes to the protest with weapons, some of these measures are can certainly be proportionate, and we're not actually opposing them per se.

"The problem is, because some [French] laws are really vague, sometimes police find specific objects in the backpack of protesters - maybe a face mask, maybe goggles - equipment that is being used [by demonstrators] to protect themselves from tear gas.

"We have often seen that these protesters are arrested. We have actually documented many instances in which people were arrested not because they had weapons, but just because they had protective equipment."

Marco Perolini is a Post-Doctoral with Goldsmiths University of London and Senior Researcher with Amnesty International.  

 

 

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