Several thousand people marched in French cities on Saturday to protest a draft law that would make it a crime to circulate an image of a police officer’s face with the intention that they be harmed, in a move condemned as an afront to press freedom.
The largest gathering was at the Trocadero Square near the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Journalist groups, as well as the Yellow Vest and Extinction Rebellion movements, and demonstrators waving flags of the communist and green parties attended the protests.
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Thousands of protesters chanted “Freedom, freedom” and “Everyone wants to film the police.” Some also held signs that read: “We’ll put down our phones when you put down your weapons.”
Similar demonstrations took place in Marseille, Lille, Montpellier, Rennes, Saint-Etienne and Nice.
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Supporters of the law say that police officers and their families need protection from harassment, both online and in person when off duty. Opponents say the law would infringe journalists’ freedom to report, and make it harder to hold police accountable for abuses such as excessive use of force.
Offenders would face a maximum penalty of up to one year in prison and a €45,000 ($53,000) fine.
Edwy Plenel, chief editor of the investigative news website Mediapart, said the proposed legislation was a “green light for the worst elements in the police.”
“Those in power are increasingly trying to prevent citizens, journalists and whistleblowers from revealing the failures of the state. When this happens, democracy fades away,” said Plenel.
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“We are not here to defend a privilege of our profession, press freedom and journalists’ freedom. We are here to defend fundamental rights, the rights of all people,” he added.
The Office of the UN High comissioner for Human Rights and France’s human rights ombudsman have also voiced concerns that the draft law could undermine fundamental rights.
In response to widespread criticism, Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Thursday that the measure would be amended to specify that it “won’t impede the freedom of information” and that it will focus only on images broadcast with “clear” intent to harm a police officer.
The movement takes its name from the high visibility vests French drivers have to keep in their cars. It was initially a protest against President Emmanuel Macron’s fuel tax, but eventually swelled to a tide of more general resentment against his government. Although numbers have dwindled, they were higher again on Saturday than in previous weeks.
Protesters gathered close to a well-guarded Arc de Triomphe, with organizers keen to discourage violence. Sporadic violence did break out, with French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner calling it the work of “professional troublemakers.”
In recent weeks, the protests have been relatively calm, but things turned ugly again this time around. Some yellow vests threw smoke bombs and cobblestones at officers, who replied by deploying clouds of tear gas.
Businesses were attacked along the Champs-Elysees, home of numerous luxury brand stores and high-end eateries. Police made arrests as demonstrators looted shops and ransacked the exclusive Fouquet’s restaurant. More modest commercial premises also suffered, including a newsstand which was set alight.
Protesters erected and set alight barricades on the Champs-Elysees on the 18th consecutive weekend of protests. Saturday’s scenes were reminiscent of some of the worst yellow vest rallies in December, when stores were looted and vandalized in images that shocked many observers.
Demonstrators have accused Macron, a former investment banker and finance minister, of looking after the interests of the wealthy while neglecting ordinary French workers. Critics have also hit out at the president’s style of government, accusing him of being too aloof and affecting a regal air — a perception that has earned him the nickname “Sun King.”
However, critics say the amendment does not go far enough. Emmanuel Poupard, secretary-general of the National Journalists Union (SNJ), said that he thinks the new amendment still “doesn’t change anything.”
The law “has only one goal: to boost the sense of impunity of law enforcement officers and make invisible police brutality,” said Poupard.
Lawmakers are scheduled to vote on the bill on Tuesday.
In July, three French police officers were charged with manslaughter over the death of a delivery man, Cedric Chouviat, that bystanders caught on video. Chouviat’s death had similarities with the killing of George Floyd in the United States, which sparked mass protests around the world, including in France.
lc/aw (AP, AFP, Reuters)