Against a backdrop of street protest—even in the midst of a COVID lockdown—and increasing police violence and repression, France Tuesday passed the draconian Global Security Law which could make it an offense punishable by a year in jail and a 45,000 euro fine to film, post, and identify police officers committing violent actions.
The members of President Emmanuel Macron’s LREM party, whose title La République En Marche claims that they are concerned about rights and liberties, on Tuesday morning watched films of the police brutally rousting homeless people from Place de la République, the square commemorating these rights. On Tuesday afternoon they voted in favor of the law, claiming that there was no contradiction between the two events. Even the Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, in charge of police intervention, pronounced the use of force in this case “shocking,” while Macron’s own former speechwriter termed the sequence “hypocrisy without end.”
The event began Monday night with police roughly dismantling a homeless encampment at République, an event that was filmed by activists and widely broadcast. Militant defenders of the homeless then marched to Hôtel de Ville, the Paris City Hall, in protest, and were dispersed by police using tear gas. Also gassed and picked out as a target by police was a web journalist Rémy Busine, whose internet site Brut (Raw) has often featured police beatings, including those in République in 2016 of the movement Nuit Debout, or Up All Night, and of the Gilets Jaunes (the Yellow Vests), the people’s movement protesting the disenfranchisement of rural and peripheral areas. At the Trocadéro, across from the Eiffel Tower, on the weekend before the global security law was voted on, French journalists spoke out at a rally claiming that they were now vulnerable to jail and fines for simply covering demonstrations.
The law comes in the wake of a widely praised film on the police, whose French title translates to A Country Which Counts Itself Wise and whose English title is The Monopoly on Violence. The film opens with footage of a police lead ball hitting a Gilet Jaune in the eye and knocking him to the ground. We then see him with a patch over the eye which he has lost, commenting on the footage. The film consists of historians and sociologists asking why state violence is encouraged and pointing out that the gassing and beating of the Gilets Jaunes which has driven their protests out of the cities and stifled the movement, is done mainly by the national police force, reporting only to the minister of defense, divorced from any local contact, and separate from municipal police who must work on the terrain. The film is made up of mostly cell phone footage of police and demonstrator interaction and has been singled out by French critics for bringing a new vividness and a new style of shooting to the documentary. The director, David Dufresne, describes the way “the electronic eye enlarges the battle for truth.” Under the new law, the film could not have existed.
Police violence has increased under Macron. Official police statistics from last June identify the police as having wounded 2,448 marchers, having fired 19,071 lead balls or LBDs, and released 1,428 tear gas grenades. The effects of these weapons are documented by the website Allo Place Beauveau, named for the site of the French Interior Ministry, which counts 344 head wounds, 29 eye gougings, and 5 mangled hands. The use of LBDs, in particular, has been condemned by the European Council and by the United Nations Council on Human Rights, condemnations ignored by the current and past interior minister. The woundings are the result also of a recent policy of direct engagement with demonstrators where the police, instead of as before attempting to patrol the fringes of the march, now wade into the center and begin contesting those on the street.
The background to this increased contestation is the rampant inequality in both the suburbs, or banlieux, and the rural areas outside the global cities, the worsening of air pollution within the cities which has brought the Greens to power in many of them including Marseille, Bordeaux and Lyon, and the continued decline of small shopkeepers exacerbated by the COVID crisis. The country is known for its recalcitrant and battling working class and for the proclivity of its citizens to take to the streets to contest injustice, as was seen in the breaking of the COVID restrictions Saturday to protest against what the French are calling “liberticide,” the stripping away and systematic destruction of their rights, their liberté.
Macron, the Rothschild banker who came to power in 2017, was elected as a defender of liberties and bulwark against Marine Le Pen and the far-right National Front. Once in power, he began a merciless Reagan-Thatcher type neoliberal attack on working people, attempting to tame the French railroad unions by privatizing the railways, continuing to make it easier for employers to fire workers, and attacking the safeguards built up over years in the French pension system, all of which provoked massive resistance and protest.
He presented himself as an ally of the environmentalists, but the Green Party turned against LREM and instead made alliances with the often divided parties of the left in several major cities to win this year’s municipal elections. Since that moment, Macron, recognizing that the left is no longer amenable to his message, has tilted not only right toward the Republicans but also increasingly to the far right, setting himself up to take votes from both in his 2022 bid for reelection.
The Global Security Law is part of that right and far-right tilt, and it remains to be seen whether the majority of the French population will accept this trampling of the Enlightenment values of free speech and liberty of expression. Currently, four court cases hinge on citizen recordings of police violence, and if that right is denied, there will be few safeguards on a police force let loose on the populace.
Dennis Broe is a television, film, and culture critic. His criticism appears in Morning Star, People’s World; Culture Matters, Crime Fiction Lover, and is on the Pacifica Network in the U.S., and on Breaking Glass on Art District Radio in Paris. His books include Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure and his novel Left of Eden about the Hollywood Blacklist. Broe taught in the Master’s Program in Film and Television Studies at the Sorbonne, Paris.
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