No rights, only duties
On 20 January, during the anti-abortion ‘March for Life’ in Paris, Thomas Salgado and other activists from Act Up arrived at a Metro station in the 16th arrondissement to take part in a counter-demonstration. Within seconds, they had been surrounded by CRS officers, who ordered them against the wall for an ID check. Salgado asked why they were being searched. To prevent a threat to public order, he was told. ‘No rights for you; only duties.’
In Salgado’s bag, the CRS officers found a gay magazine, a notebook with trade union and Act Up stickers, and a box of 100 condoms – provided by the state. The police said they would be confiscating the materials for their ‘political message’. ‘It would be worse in North Korea,’ one cop said. The police took the group’s pink triangle flag and trampled on it. ‘The symbolic violence was quite strong,’ Salgado told me.
The police eventually released the activists after roughly forty minutes, telling them: ‘You are complicating our job – we’re here to fight terrorism.’
When I asked the police about the incident, they told me that ‘to date, no report has been made on this situation … Those who consider themselves victims are invited to come to a police station to report the facts.’
France implemented a state of emergency after the November 2015 attacks in Paris. It allowed prefects to ban any gathering ‘as a precautionary measure on very broad and undefined grounds of “threat to public order”,’ Amnesty International reported in May 2017. ‘These powers to restrict the right to freedom of peaceful assembly have frequently been used disproportionately.’ In late 2017 Macron announced that the state of emergency would be lifted, but many of its provisional measures were enshrined in law.
Since the Gilets Jaunes began protesting last November, the police have deployed flash balls, tear gas and grenades to quell protests (some of which have been violent); several journalists have said police intentionally targeted them, and gruesome photos of protesters who’ve lost eyes (or worse) have been circulating on social media. Less attention has been given to the suppression of other protests, such as Act Up’s thwarted action in support of a woman’s right to choose.
The National Assembly is currently preparing legislation that will give administrative authorities broad powers to ban specific people from protesting, without allowing them a meaningful ability to appeal the decision. Anyone in breach of a banning order could face a fine and prison. Anyone who covers their face during a protest could be sentenced to a year in jail. If past clampdowns are anything to go by, these new measures will do little to reduce terrorism or maintain public order; but they will make it harder for voices like Salgado’s to make themselves heard.