FRENCH state powers designed to combat terrorism have been repeatedly misused to curb peaceful protest, a new report from Amnesty International has found.
A right not a threat: Disproportionate restrictions on demonstrations under the State of Emergency in France reveals that hundreds of unjustified measures restricting freedom of movement and the right to peaceful assembly have been issued under the guise of countering terrorism.
‘Emergency laws intended to protect the French people from the threat of terrorism are instead being used to restrict their rights to protest peacefully,’ said Marco Perolini, Amnesty International’s researcher on France.
‘Under the cover of the state of emergency, rights to protest have been stripped away with hundreds of activists, environmentalists, and labour rights campaigners unjustifiably banned from participating in protests,’ he added.
Amnesty says: ‘Following the horrific Paris attacks on 13 November 2015, France’s state of emergency, introduced a day later, has been renewed five times normalising a range of intrusive measures. These include powers to ban demonstrations on vague grounds and prevent individuals attending protests. Last week, President Macron indicated that he will ask parliament to extend it for a sixth time.
‘The state of emergency allows prefects to ban any gathering as a precautionary measure on very broad and undefined grounds of “threat to public order”. These powers to restrict the right to freedom of peaceful assembly have frequently been used disproportionately.
‘Between November 2015 and 5 May 2017, authorities used emergency powers to issue 155 decrees prohibiting public assemblies, in addition to banning dozens of protests using ordinary French law. They also imposed 639 measures preventing specific individuals participating in public assemblies.
‘Of these, 574 were targeted at those protesting against proposed labour law reforms. Moreover, according to media reports, authorities imposed dozens of similar measures to prevent people from participating in protests after the second round of the presidential elections on 7 May.’ One labour law protester told Amnesty International: ‘You get the impression that they use any means at their disposal to attack those who are the most active in the movement.’
The Amnesty report states: ‘Charles, a young student living in Paris, was subject to an order prohibiting him from attending two protests against the labour law reforms on 17 May and 14 June in Paris. The ban was based on his arrest on 17 March in the context of a previous protest; he was subsequently released without charge.’
He explained to Amnesty International the chilling effect of the measures imposed: ‘I wanted to protest against the reform of labour laws but after my time in pre-charge detention I didn’t go to another demonstration until June, because I wasn’t prepared to demonstrate and then get arrested and beaten up.
‘After 17 May, every time there was a demonstration, I wondered whether the police would come to my house to see if I was there. They had accused me of being one of the violent demonstrators and my mother had started to have some doubts. I felt like I had been treated like a terrorist, like someone dangerous.
‘At first I was isolated, I didn’t know anyone else who had been banned from demonstrating. Then I realised that other people had been targeted too. I started to think that they wanted to intimidate us so we wouldn’t go to the demonstrations.’
Amnesty notes: ‘These restrictions breach the presumption under international law that a demonstration should be assumed to be peaceful unless authorities can show otherwise. Protests are being seen as a potential threat rather than a fundamental right. In defiance of the restrictions under the state of emergency, many have continued to protest.
‘However, those who braved the restrictions have frequently been met with unnecessary or excessive force by the security forces. Batons, rubber bullets and tear gas have been used against peaceful protesters who did not appear to threaten public order. Whilst some of those involved in these public assemblies did engage in acts of violence, hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters suffered injuries at the hands of police.
‘The Street Medics, an informal movement of first-aid workers, estimated that in Paris alone, around 1,000 protesters were injured by police during protests against the labour law reforms. Amnesty International has seen video evidence of four police officers kicking and beating Paco, a 16-year-old student, with batons before arresting him.’
Two witnesses told Amnesty International that Paco was not engaging in violence when he was attacked by the police. The report section ‘Excessive use of force’ states: ‘On 28 April 2016, Jean-François, a 20-year-old student of geography at the University of Rennes II, attended a public assembly organised in Rennes against the labour law reforms. When the official march ended, he joined a group of protesters who headed towards the historic city centre.
‘Protesters reached Place de la République at about 1.30pm; they could not walk on any further as police were blocking all the access points to the city centre. Clashes ensued between police and protesters. Jean-François left the intersection where he was standing, between quai Chateaubriand and rue Jaurès, when police started charging protesters and crossed the bridge connecting quai Chateaubriand with quai Emile Zola.’
He told Amnesty International: ‘Once I reached the other side of the bridge, I saw the CRS charge towards the people on the bridge. There was a squad of CRS on the other side, 30 or 40 metres away. I was standing behind a bench. I hadn’t seen that they were pointing the weapon at me. When I was hit, I realised it was an LBD that had been fired, I lost a lot of blood, the street medics took care of me. I was taken to hospital where I underwent two operations, the first lasting five hours and then a shorter one a few days later. I spent five days in hospital’.
Jean-François lost his left eye. He told Amnesty International that the forensic doctor had certified that the injury had been caused by a rubber ball projectile fired with a launcher LBD40. The Prosecutor’s Office opened an investigation shortly afterwards, to be carried out by the IGPN.
Jean-François told Amnesty International: ‘I am very angry. Before that I tended to trust the police. Some of the police were hit and I don’t think that is right. But to me it was inconceivable that that could happen, that I could be shot. Since 2007, 29 people have lost an eye due to police violence, 28 from the firing of a flash ball or an LBD, if I am not mistaken. I’m not interested in the person who shot me being put in jail. I want the state to recognise the mistake’.
Amnesty states: ‘In an open letter, the Prefect of Ille-et-Vilaine sought to justify the policing of the public assembly on 28 April. He stated that the use of force was necessary to counter violent protesters who were trying to reach the historic city centre.
‘However, law enforcement officials used kinetic impact projectiles to target a person who was apparently not using violence or posing a threat to anyone. Moreover, the projectile hit Jean-Francois at head height, indicating that the weapon was aimed not at the lower part of the body, as required by domestic guidelines on the use of these weapons (see Section 3.2) and the officer therefore failed to take into account the possible harm associated with the use of that weapon.’
Amnesty’s Marco Perolini said: ‘By drastically lowering the bar for restricting the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, France’s state of emergency has resulted in the egregious misuse of what were designed to be exceptional measures to counter terrorism. People peacefully exercising their right to assembly have been swept up in a crude anti-terrorism net.
‘In the run-up to the election, Emmanuel Macron promised to protect the right to protest in France. Now he is President, he must turn his words into action. With the battle lines already being drawn between the new president and the unions on labour law reform, President Macron must stop the misuse of anti-terrorism powers to restrict peaceful protest and end France’s dangerous and dizzying spiral towards a permanent state of emergency.’