French MPs approve anti-riot bill amid Yellow Vest protests, rights watchdog sounds alarm

13 Mar, 2019

The upper house of the French parliament has greenlighted a bill giving police broad powers to quell unrest. It comes as a rights watchdog warned of civil liberties being undermined in France due to crackdowns on protest.

Following hours of tense debate on Tuesday, the French Senate approved an anti-hooligan (‘anti-casseurs’) bill by a margin of 210 votes to 115.

The bill has courted widespread controversy, having been denounced as “liberticide” by the left, and hailed as a “the law of protections” by the French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner.

The government insists that the legislation will allow to distinguish between law-abiding protesters and violent rioters, while providing protection for both law enforcement and Yellow Vest demonstrators. Speaking ahead of the vote on Tuesday, Castaner defended the bill, saying that it “safeguards the right to demonstrate,” while brushing off concerns that it encroaches on civil freedoms.

“This text does not include an ounce of arbitrariness,” he said.

His view has not been shared by many among the opposition.

Senator Jerome Durain of the center-left Socialist Party (PS) slammed the draft as “useless, imprecise and dangerous,” arguing that it will only foment the unrest.

“The dramatization of the situation does not serve anyone,” Durain said.

The bill, which was first introduced in parliament last year, has already received backing from the National Assembly, France’s lower house. While the National Assembly overwhelmingly supported the bill in February, the vote saw an unprecedented number of abstentions within French President Emmanuel Macron’s own La Republique En Marche (LREM) party. Some 50 LREM lawmakers chose not to approve the bill and one MP, Matthieu Orphelin, went as far as to desert the party ranks altogether in the wake of the vote.

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Many took issue with the provisions of the bill that prohibit protesters from wearing masks at rallies and allow police to single out and ban certain “troublemakers” from attending the ‘acts.’

The Yellow Vest protests have been marred by violence from both sides. While the French authorities blame radicals for inciting violence, protesters accuse the police of disproportionate use of force that has resulted in limbs getting torn off, eyes lost and other life-changing injuries for demonstrators who were caught up in the clashes.

In the run-up to the bill’s adoption, the head of the Defenseur des Droits de l’Homme (Defender of Human Rights) body, Jacques Toubon, called for change to the ham-fisted policing methods employed by the state, which he said was a legacy of the state of emergency imposed after a spate of Islamist-inspired terrorist attacks in November 2015. The state of emergency was lifted in 2017, but it has weakened the French legal system by giving police more leeway to crack down on rights and freedoms under the pretext of protecting national security, Toubon argued.

It “helped lay the foundations for a new legal order, based on suspicion, in which fundamental rights and liberties have been somewhat weakened,” Toubon said, calling it a “poisoned pill” that “gradually contaminated our common law, undermining the rule of law as well as the rights and freedoms.”

The law will now be referred to the Constitutional Council, which will ensure none of its points violate the constitution. Some lawmakers said they are placing hope on the Council to erase or modify the most troubling provisions.

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“We are now relying on the Council to purge this text of all its unconstitutionality,” Maryse Carrere of the social-liberal The Radical Movement (MR) said.

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