French law banning the filming of police faces scrutiny at home and abroad

French law banning the filming of police faces scrutiny at home and abroad
Source: Christian Hartmann, Reuters
After an intense public outcry, the French government has paused passage of the law, vowing to rewrite it to balance the security of the police with protecting the civil liberties of French citizens.

The French government is under scrutiny after introducing a law that would make it illegal to film the police.

With the bill’s passage through the lower chamber of the French government and the release of videos depicting police violence and racial abuse, thousands of French citizens have taken to the streets in protest. Now, after an intense public outcry, the French government has paused passage of the law, vowing to rewrite it to balance the security of the police with protecting the civil liberties of French citizens.

Article 24

Article 24 is a major part of President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed “Loi relative à la sécurité globale” (law on global security). As the most controversial part of the bill, article 24 would make it illegal to publish any photos or videos where a police officer could be recognized. The key stipulation to the article, though, is that the act of publishing is punishable only if there is intent to harm the officer’s “physical or psychological integrity.”

French attorney Michel Nassar told TMS that the government aims to protect the identities and well-being of police officers and their families. He explained that the law was a response to “the increase of online publication of personal information of police officers such as full name, home address and even sometimes the school their children go to. Some of these publications called for and were followed by (violent) attacks of police officers.”

In the original bill, the phrasing was left considerably vague, which worried activists over the many ways the law could potentially be interpreted. The bill was then amended to redefine the intent to harm so that the law would not interfere with freedom of the press. Despite this amendment, activists are still worried that the bill will make it harder to keep the police accountable for their actions.

If found guilty of the proposed law, offenders could face one year in prison and a €45,000 fine.

Before becoming a law, the bill must pass through the French Parliament, which consists of both the National Assembly and the Senate. France’s lower chamber approved the law on Tuesday, November 4. Ten members of Parliament (MPs) opposed the bill, while 40 members of the La République En Marche (LREM) party, founded by President Emmanuel Macron, abstained.

Spain’s “gag law”

Countries throughout Europe have similar laws already in place. On July 1, 2015, Spain’s “gag law” went into effect, making it illegal to film police among other things. The law includes fines of €600 for insulting the police and €30,000 for publishing damaging photos of police officers.

Public concern over liberties the law may put into jeopardy – including freedom of speech, freedom to protest and the freedom of the press – has also led to mass protests in Spain. Despite this, the government still enacted the law.

Global & local response to article 24

Politicians in France have expressed mixed reactions to the bill. Nathalie Sarles of the LREM party believes the bill moves France “slowly … towards an authoritarian state.” The bill is backed by Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin who told BFMTV that “My job as interior minister is to protect those who protect us.”

Activists have argued that filming the police during interactions with civilians is a de-escalation tactic, discouraging violence. Additionally, video recordings of police have been used to prove the use of excessive force by police.

The European Commission has also expressed its concern, stressing the balance between civil liberties and security. A spokesperson stated, “In a crisis period, it is more important than ever that journalists should be able to do their work freely and in full security.”

“The original draft of the bill allowed for arbitrary interpretations,” Nassar explained. “Many lawyers were vocal against it because it endangers freedom of speech and freedom of the press.”

On November 28, 133,000 protesters, according to the Ministry of the Interior, took to the streets in France to protest police brutality and oppose the proposed bill.

Journalists from the French newspaper Le Monde were on the scene to ask protesters why they were on the streets. One protester, referred to as Camille, asked, “If we can no longer film or photograph, who will protect us from police violence?”

Videos of police violence released in the last few weeks have increased tensions between citizens and the police. Last week, a video showed French police using tear gas and dispersal grenades to clear a migrant camp from central Paris. In a letter to the French interior minister, Parisian Mayor Anne Hidalgo accused the police of “brutal and disproportionate use of force.”

Most recently, a video of the violent beating of a music producer named Michel Zecler caused an uproar among citizens and politicians alike. The timing of the video brought extra scrutiny on article 24, raising concerns about the accountability of police. In a Facebook post, President Macron responded with disdain, saying the actions of the police in the video “shame us.”

Nassar described the significance of the video, saying, “In this case, police officers made false claims and testimonies that only a video allowed to counter. As bad as it was for the victim, this is kind of [salvation] for the country.”

Government backtracks and U-turns

In response to growing pressure from the media, politicians and protesters, Prime Minister Jean Castex established an independent committee to revisit the bill. This move appears to have backfired. Conservative Senator Bruno Retailleau tweeted, “article 24 is still in the text that was sent out to the Senate last Tuesday. According to the Constitution, its rewriting falls into the Senate’s hands.”

Chris Castaner, leader of LREM, insisted article 24 would not encroach on civil liberties and in a press conference insisted that the law’s rewriting would “erase any doubts” about the matter.

In the midst of one of the biggest crises of Macron’s time in power, the president has vowed to work with members of the government in order “to reaffirm the link of confidence that should naturally exist between the French and those who protect them” and to better fight discrimination.

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