Freedom of speech at all costs? How the French new security bill revealed the country’s contradictions

By Hannah Bieber

“I will always defend freedom of speech in my country” said French President Emmanuel Macron in an interview he gave to Aljazeera on October 31st, 2020. One month later, French citizens took up the streets in mass protest against the new security bill proposed by the government – and forced the latter to rewrite it. The cause of the unrest was Article 24, that banned sharing images of police officers if they aimed to harm them physically or psychologically, which was accused of threatening freedom of speech. But how did we get there?

Je suis Charlie: Freedom of speech, a core French value

On October 16th, 2020, French history teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded after showing his students caricatures of Mohammad from the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Almost five years after the November 2015 Paris Attacks, this gruesome murder sparked peaceful demonstrations throughout the whole country. More than paying tribute to the teacher, people wanted to defend a core French value: freedom of speech. 

The same principle laid at the heart of Emmanuel Macron’s rhetoric, as he said that, although he did not necessarily agree with the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, it was his duty to make sure they could be drawn and published. He asserted that France would not give up its caricatures and would always defend human rights and secularism. This was in the line with the “Je suis Charlie” phrase that was coined in the aftermath of the January 2015 attacks against Charlie Hebdo, as a way to express support towards the newspaper.

The fact that the French administration supported the teacher showing the cartoons that led to these very attacks was met with discontent in some parts of the world. In Bangladesh, Libya, Syria and the Gaza Strip, people protested to show how unhappy they were with Macron’s statements. Some countries called for a boycott of French products, resulting in alleys stripped from these goods in supermarkets in Jordan, Qatar and Kuwait. Tensions particularly escalated between Macron and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who went as far as to question the mental health of the French president. 

But, with the support of its European neighbors, Macron stood his ground and did not back off, in the name of freedom of speech. At the end of October, it appeared that the French President was definitely committed to this principle and even ready to risk diplomatic tensions to defend it. But less than one month later, he had to face his own contradictions.

The new security bill unveiled Macron’s contradictions

Macron’s discourse on fundamental freedoms was deemed inconsistent – to say the least – when the new security bill project was revealed by the French government. Discontent particularly aroused around the 24th Article of the bill, which forbade people to share images aiming at harming police officers, either physically or psychologically. The government’s argument was this would ensure the protection of policemen and women, who were increasingly exposed to violence.

French people, the press and the opposition immediately reacted to this article, arguing that the terminology was unclear, which may lead to a misuse of this law to condemn journalists and individuals who shared images of police violence. Amnesty International also stated that the whole bill could lead to violations of the right to inform, the right to privacy, and the right to gather peacefully – all essential conditions to freedom of speech. Other human rights agencies such as the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme also demanded that the law be revised.

On November 25th, 2020, despite the growing discontent expressed in the media and public opinion, the Assemblée Nationale (the French parliament) passed the bill. This first step towards its implementation – it still had to be examined by the Senate – prompted UN experts to urge the government and parliament to revise it. They indeed considered that the proposed law was “incompatible with international law and human rights”.

Just before the act was passed, a footage of the violent dismantling of a migrant camp in Paris was shared on social media. This police smear put already controversial French Minister of Interior Gérald Darmanin, who is pushing for the bill, in an uncomfortable position. A few days later, a shocking footage of policemen beating up a black man in his music studio went viral. The timing could not have been worse.

This series of events sparked protests all over the country on November 28th, 2020, despite the Covid-19 restrictions. Thousands of people expressed their fear towards the implementation of authoritarian laws in France, which would further institutionalized violence and racism and censor the press. On the other hand, inside the majority itself, cracks started to show. For instance, Minister of Culture Roselyne Bachelot and Minister of Justice Eric Dupont-Moretti both declared that the text had to be clarified and discussed further. Eventually, the government had to back off and announced that Article 24 of the bill would be completely rewritten. 

“We’re not Hungary, Turkey or others”: is France really different?

In a recent interview for French online mass media Brut, Emmanuel Macron defended his government and refused to admit the country was becoming more authoritarian. “We’re not Hungary, Turkey or others!” said the president, alluding to the repressive measures against freedom of speech implemented in these countries. He added: “I cannot let people say that we are reducing liberties in our country.” But is it really true?

On the contrary, even though Macron won’t admit it, police officers have abused their powers several times since he was elected, which crystallized in the violent police response to the 2018 Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) that left dozens of protesters and some journalists injured. The police have gone from a body supposed to protect citizens to an institution that inspires distrust and defiance. As a matter of fact, in a poll published by Ifop on December 3, 2020, only 37% of French people said they trusted the police, while 58% said they considered police violence a reality. 

Before criticizing countries like Turkey or Hungary, Emmanuel Macron should address his own contradictions and show the same commitment to the respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms no matter the context. If he fails to do so, some policies might start to strangely resemble the ones implemented by far right populists, whom he seeks to detach himself from.



Picture: “Who is protecting us from the police?” sign at the demonstration against the new security bill on 28th November, 2020.
Credits: Jeanne Menjoulet, Flickr.

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