Can Europe Make It?

France: when police intimidation is in the frame

If this bill passes into law, good journalism will become harder still. But so will the chances of being a good cop.

Chris Myant
Chris Myant
17 November 2020, 2.10pm
Gerald Darmanin, French Minister of the Interior.
Berzane Nasser/PA. All rights reserved.

It is getting harder to be a good journalist in France. The pressures are many and varied, but one stands out at the moment: the government intends to use the law to make it harder still.

The pressure point Emmanuel Macron and his Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin have chosen is the claim that social and mainstream media exposure of police violence endangers individual police officers.

In some cases, they argue, identifiable officers have then been attacked and their lives put in danger. Darmanin has been repeating the claim at every opportunity this last fortnight, highlighting one gruesome murder of a police couple who were knifed to death in an Islamist killing in 2016.

The prize they want to run away with is an end to images of police violence, images which have stripped away the cloak of denial proffered over recent decades by successive governments in Paris. Darmanin was on tv the other day saying: “I made a promise, which was to no longer allow the diffusion of images of police officers on social media. This promise will be fulfilled because this law entails a ban on the diffusion of these images.”

The French National Assembly, the parliament’s lower house, will discuss the text on 17 November. It will then go to the Senate, the upper house dominated by the Gaullist right and that will be it. A form of parliamentary guillotine being used for this statute means that there will just be this one round of discussion in order to get the legislation into force as soon as possible.

A form of parliamentary guillotine being used for this statute means that there will just be this one round of discussion in order to get the legislation into force as soon as possible.

Darmanin’s philosophy

In an interview the weekend before with the daily Le Parisien (owned by Bernard Arnaud of LVMH, France’s richest business figure and one who used the former head of France’s intelligence service, Bernard Squarcini to spy on journalists he did not like), Darmanin explained his philosophy: “Society’s cancer is the disrespect of authority. . . It is unbelievable, this society in which people think that the police are the aggressors.”

The law is intended to do many things. The role of private security guards will be augmented along with that of the small local police forces run by many local mayors. Their arming will be facilitated, something not everyone wants. Paris, for instance, has announced the creation of a 3,000 strong municipal force but stressed that it will not be given firearms.

But it is the combination of three clauses that have caused uproar in the media professions and among civil liberties groups.

Articles 21 and 22 assert the right of the police at all times to use cameras – whether on drones, their own bodies or static cctv-style equipment – for live or recorded observation of the public. The use of drone-mounted cameras during the epidemic to identify members of the public in the street has been stopped by the courts where the police have been using health emergency provisions and not their powers under the criminal law. If the law is passed – and there are probable majorities for it in both houses of the French parliament – the police will be able to record identities in real time facial recognition techniques during any public order operation.

The police will be able to record identities in real time facial recognition techniques during any public order.

Article 24

Its article 24 would, on the other hand, ban the diffusion of “an image of the face or any other element identifying an officer of the national police or gendarmerie, other than their individual serial number, when they are on official duty and where the “intention is to cause physical and psychological harm”.

This measure has to be seen in the context of four things:

  • The official philosophy behind French policing which automatically creates a confrontational relationship rather than one characterised by a police service that serves the law and the public;
  • The way in which terrorism and now the epidemic have been exploited to shield government decision-taking and practice from proper public scrutiny with the conversion of emergency law provisions into ordinary statute powers, the increasing use of legislation by decree and the habituation of the public to decision-taking on the epidemic by Macron and his immediate entourage in private;
  • The new guidance on the maintenance of public order issued by the Ministry of the Interior on 16 September that already dramatically reinforced control over those reporting on police activities;
  • The continued refusal to create properly independent complaint procedures when it comes to police activities, all these being left in the hands of bodies within the police system itself or those, like the statutory Défenseur de droits, who may investigate but cannot take any action over their findings.

Put that together and you have an approach by the French state which has both provoked and permitted police violence as a general practice and has meant that the exposure of this has been largely in the hands of vulnerable and poorly equipped volunteer civil rights observatories and those independent journalists and members of the public who are prepared to take the risks – already high – of themselves being the victims of police violence. Their publications have rarely been mainstream and usually rely on the social networks.

Darmanin’s public order guidance already separates these “independent” sources out from those whose material can be subjected to editorial control within the established media.

The carte de presse

French journalism benefits from a strong law passed way back in 1881. It has been the basis for its freedom to work for a century and a half. However, it also offers a definition of who is a journalist that can exclude new independent and freelance style practitioners (freelance-style because strictly speaking French employment law does not accept the status of freelance). Those who are employed in the mainstream media on news-gathering can have access to a French official carte de presse which comes with a host of benefits such as free access to all the public museums, chateaux and galleries where the general public often has to pay a hefty entrance fee.

The new guidance allows “journalists who possess a carte de presse, accredited with the authorities” somewhat greater freedom to report than others, but still provides that “the misdemeanour created by the fact of remaining in a group after an order (by the police to leave, CM) allows of no exception, and that includes for journalists and members of associations”. The latter being those civil liberties observers.

All four of France’s journalist unions, each one affiliated to one or other of the main national trade union federations, have opposed the law. Their joint statement, backed by the country’s civil liberties bodies, warns:

“In reality, diffusing an image, particularly a live one, will be virtually impossible. Just filming or photographing will lead to arrests and violence by the police, as has too often already been the case. Clearly, it is not only journalists, photo-journalists, documentary film makers and members of citizens’ observatories who are targeted by this, but anyone taking photos with a smart phone, particularly during demonstrations or social protests. How can one characterise the intention? How can one take the risk that someone else will not use these images maliciously?

“Self-censorship will be massive in the media and across social media platforms. On the other hand, the police will be able to film or photograph the public at their leisure. The deputies of the LREM (the governing party of Macron, CM) who support this proposition are pursuing the desire of the government to muzzle freedom of information and expression and through that the right to demonstrate.”

Self-censorship will be massive in the media and across social media platforms. On the other hand, the police will be able to film or photograph the public at their leisure.

Police intimidation

As it is, journalists covering those rallies successive governments have wanted to intimidate – those by the trade unions, by the Gilets jaunes, feminists and students – have been faced with police aggression, their equipment confiscated on occasion, some have been arrested and kept in police cells to teach them a lesson, others have been truncheoned, tear gassed or hit by projectiles.

They have also been repeatedly told by individual police officers that filming or photographing is illegal when, in fact, French law up to now has guaranteed the right to do that. Such claims have never been made when the media has been filming the great ceremonies of state to commemorate the death of an officer.

One can imagine the absurdity of blurring out the faces of the officers at attention and in line as the coffin of their colleague passes. No, these claims have been made when the subject of the film is police malpractice. And that, in turn, is an implicit acceptance of the unacceptability of such police behaviour.

Take the short video available here. We see a group of men in civilian clothes, most with their faces fully masked, violently handling someone whom they thrust down onto the roadway, kneeling on his head, hitting and violently manipulating him. Are any of the officers “identified”? Will people dare to film such events in future, the knee on the neck and head included?

Go to my piece on openDemocracy written in the spring, which covers more such videos and will give you a bit of an insight into Jean-Michel Fauvergue, the former police commander now an LREM deputy, who is behind the proposed law.

If this bill passes into law, good journalism will become harder still. But so will the chances of being a good cop, of being one who is trusted by all the public and who sees their job as being one that is accountable to the law, observed by, as well as serving, an active and involved public. It is not an easy lesson to learn for either side, but neither journalists nor police should have a quiet life when it comes to public accountability.

NOTE: Journalists’ unions and civil liberties bodies have called for protests across France against this new law. A first rally outside the National Assembly on 17 November was attended by several thousand. Using the argument that the protest had become illegal as it was continuing after the originally agreed two hours, the police proceeded to demand that the demonstrators leave, doing in the course of that precisely what requires journalists to be able to do their work properly. This included a series of violent incidents in which journalists and photographers were attacked by the police. One journalist for the France TV3 chain was held for 11 hours.

Video available on the net includes film of the treatment of the photographer Hanna Nelson who was accused by the police of hiding her face – not only an irony because that is what the police aim to do themselves, but also an absurdity because she was wearing the face mask required by the French government’s rules for those outside their homes during the epidemic. For her own pages on her work and previous experiences with the police go here and for video of her arrest on the 17th, see here. She spent even longer in detention.

One short clip, available here, shows how plainclothes police officers act as provocateurs and are often at the start of incidents that provide the excuse for generalised police violence against demonstrators. You see the officer in plain clothes appear from the right of the camera and push a person who had been standing still into the line of riot police who then proceed to truncheon the demonstrators in front of them, none of whom have committed any act of violence before they are hit. Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin tried to explain away the treatment of journalists on the grounds that they had not registered their presence with the Prefect of Police before the demonstration. Had they done that, he claimed, they would have been ‘protected by the forces of order’.

Once in a while, the evidence of gratuitous violence is so clear that official action is taken. One officer filmed kicking a man in the face while he was being held on the ground has been charged with criminal violence. But note that while the video did lead finally to a court case, none of the officers around the one who gave the kick did anything other than to use violence which to most people would look as a bad.

Videos of police violence in France continue to appear on the internet. For one recorded on Sunday evening in Vitry-sur-Seine, a south eastern suburb of the capital, see here.

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