At the end of November, returning to the UK on my way back from the first part of my year abroad, I passed through the Place de la Bastille and the Place de la République in Paris. Over the years these two squares have played host to thousands of people protesting against political and social injustice. A mere couple of hours after I had left, they were once again awash with protestors and police officers in full riot gear, silhouetted against a backdrop of tear gas and plumes of firework smoke.

As alarming as this sounds, it was by no means an unprecedented occurrence. Tensions between participants and the French security forces have always been high at demonstrations such as these, particularly since the emergence of the gilets jaunes (‘Yellow vests’) movement in 2018. However, whilst police and gendarmes have always been a presence at protests, on the 28th of November they not only found themselves at the heart of the action, but at the root of the protest’s cause. The explanation for this shift? A proposed law which talks about ‘global security’, camera phones and protecting police identity.

The ‘global security law’ was passed by the French National Assembly in mid-November and was awaiting approval by the Senate when the waves of public protests against it began. It gives legal justification for police and gendarmes to share footage captured on their body cameras and for security forces to use drones to monitor public spaces. The most controversial section is article 24, which criminalises the publication of images of on-duty police officers if there is an intent to damage “physical or psychological integrity”. The latter offence would be punishable by up to a year’s imprisonment or a fine of €45,000 (£40,500).

The proposed law has attracted severe criticism both within France and from members of the international community. Journalists’ unions and French politicians (including some representatives from within President Macron’s own party, La République en marche) have condemned the bill for undermining freedoms of the press and expression. They are concerned that people will be discouraged from filming acts of police violence for fear of prosecution. Nor has the law escaped the wrath of the French public. According to government figures, on 28th November 133,000 protestors across France took to the streets to voice their opposition. These protests were mirrored, although not quite to the same scale, in the weeks that followed.

It might be tempting for onlookers to roll their eyes and dismiss the entire episode as an example of French protectiveness surrounding their beloved liberté d’expression. After all, freedom of expression has been embedded in French culture since the Revolution. Freedom of the press (and by implication the freedom to inform and be informed through diverse forms of media) was awarded explicit legal protection in 1948. Yet some aspects of the proposed law have caused some anxiety from a universal human rights perspective.

Amnesty International, the European Council and the UN have all expressed concern over the global security law. Advisory experts to the UN Human Rights Council have judged the bill to be “incompatible with international law and human rights”, a bold statement which has been echoed by Michelle Bachelet, the current UN commissioner for this area. Particular unease surrounds article 24, prompting many NGOs to call for the article to be scrapped altogether. Clearly, this is much more than a case of the French ‘overreacting’.

Criticism of this law goes much further than defending a core element of French culture. As well as being seen as a means of protecting freedom of expression, the right to film on-duty police officers has become a key tool for those seeking justice against instances of police brutality. The most widely known examples of this, such as the murder of George Floyd, centre in the US. But one recent French incident to make international headlines concerned the black music producer Michel Zecler, who was attacked by four police officers in his Parisian studio in November. According to Zecler’s lawyer, it was primarily due to the CCTV recordings of the event that he has been able to pursue legal action. When news of the case emerged the global security law was already under heavy scrutiny, fuelling public indignation and motivating several key members of the French sporting community to express their outrage over the matter.

Less publicised was the case of Cédric Chouviat, a father of five of North African descent, who was stopped by police in Paris. After being pinned down by three police officers, he died in hospital two days later. A broken larynx was listed among other injuries in the autopsy report. The officers involved denied any wrongdoing, but several passing motorists filmed the incident, providing footage which some have said was instrumental to the opening of a criminal case.

These two cases, along with images showing French police using force when deconstructing a migrant camp in Paris a few months ago, reflect the growing global awareness around police brutality that has emerged during the past year. Whether the level of violence itself is rising is open for debate – some argue that a number of police officers have been employing similar methods for years and that the true picture is only just coming to light. But the experiences of Zecler and Chouviat (among others) also demonstrate the vital role that civilian footage can play if police officers deny the use of violence. Restricting the right to film these incidents is seen by many as inhibiting justice – the right to which is recognised in international law.

Yet to declare that the global security law is an unquestionable breach of international human rights would be to ignore the opinions of those who find themselves on the other side of the debate: the police officers themselves. The lawmakers who drafted the bill claim that they had no intention of limiting freedoms of expression or the press; their primary concern was the protection of individual police officers.

In recent history there have been cases where images of French police officers have been posted on social media with the purpose of identifying them and causing them harm. The rather woolly phrase describing “a threat to physical and psychological integrity” in article 24 refers to the very real fear that some officers have for their own or their family’s safety, should they make enemies whilst carrying out their duties. The police “are not protected enough”, insisted the French Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, when questioned on the article’s relevance.

Moreover, there are those who believe that the proposed law does not go far enough to ensure the protection of individual officers. Numerous regional leaders of police unions have expressed their desire for more decisive government intervention in the matter. “We want actions, laws and regulations which will protect our officers,” said a departmental representative of the union SGP Unité Police. The French government thus finds itself in a rather problematic position, unable to fully satisfy either group’s demands and accused of undermining people’s rights on both sides.

Darmanin has tried to bridge the gap between the camps by insisting that “protecting police and preserving freedom of the press are not in competition”. Yet such comments remain unconvincing when juxtaposed with the words of Christophe Castaner, parliamentary leader of LREM, who described it as a balancing act between the two. Should concerns over police safety prevail over the right to freedom of information?

In turn, this raises the question of whether police officers – in France and elsewhere – deserve the level of individual protection that the bill affords. The right to privacy is stated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is mentioned in over 150 national constitutions. However, public figures who cite this right (often after details of their private lives have appeared in the tabloids) are frequently met with the argument that they sacrificed this right when they entered the public sphere. The public has the right to know what the country’s representatives are doing, and therefore any legislation ‘concealing’ these private details would be a violation of both the freedoms of expression and of information. 

Police officers are by definition employees of the state. Back in 2019, ten officers involved in misconduct proceedings in Scotland lost a battle to discount a series of Whatsapp messages as evidence in the case. Senior figures in the Scottish judiciary system concluded that police officers should be held accountable to certain standards whether they are on or off duty, in order to preserve public faith in the law enforcement system. The case in question concerned private messages as opposed to identifiable images, but the message resonates with our debate: in many Western democracies, police officers cannot expect the same right to privacy as ordinary citizens. For those who interpret this principle in its most fundamental format, French officers have no right to the level of individual protection that the proposed global security law awards them.

It is all very well to come to this conclusion through logical deduction. But the harsh reality that this verdict would produce if enforced verbatim – namely, with police officers and their families being exposed to identification by those who might wish them genuine physical or psychological harm – has significant moral implications. There are officers whose conduct is far from blameless and it is an unfortunate fact of our times that some will have been involved in incidents of police brutality. But we must ask ourselves the question: do we want to live in a society which, in certain contexts, condones people taking the law into their own hands? The majority of us would agree that we do not. This perhaps explains why opponents of the global security law are choosing to shout loudly about the threat to freedom of expression rather than directly addressing police officers’ concerns. Such an appraisal might force them to face some rather uncomfortable moral predicaments.

Succumbing to pressure from NGOs, public figures and political protestors, at the end of November Macron’s government announced that the global security law would be “completely rewritten” before being presented once again to the French parliament. Yet the concession was not total. Rather than scrapping the infamous article 24 (as the UN advised), Castaner promised that “the intention to harm” police officers using images will still be subject to punishment. This is where the fundamental issue lies, and why the global security law is likely to remain a simmering issue for quite some time.

The idea of “intentional harm”, central to the wording of article 24 itself and in the rhetoric of the controversy surrounding it, is subjective. Indeed, this was one of the many criticisms of the law: people feared that police officials might use the phrase’s ambiguity to abuse the powers afforded to them. But it is not only the word choice which is problematic; in the article, French lawmakers are attempting to concisely codify a rather hazy offence. The addition of the prospect of psychological damage exacerbates this. It is difficult to conceive of a way in which “the intention to harm” can be defined objectively in a way which will satisfy both police officers and the law’s original critics. A layer of subjectivity will always remain. This inherent subjectivity is what makes it so difficult to conclusively and convincingly attach a label to the law, either as a necessary step to protect individual police officers or as a threat to international human rights. 

The dual aspect of this entire debate was summed up quite nicely by one political commentator, who wrote that the government’s decision to redraft the bill was ‘un signe de sagesse et de faiblesse à la fois’ – a sign of wisdom and weakness. Macron’s promise to revisit the law has kept critics at bay for a short while, but this is unlikely to last long. We can expect a revival of the debate when the government begins the review process later this month.

Whatever the outcome, the matter is sure to have a significant impact on Macron’s 2022 re-election campaign, where he will undoubtedly face criticism for his and his ministers’ handling of the situation. As the world looks on, it will be interesting to see how the matter continues to play out in the land of liberté and the implications for the future of similar legislation elsewhere.

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