Crises in France: security threats, or threats to the rule of law?

Crises in France: security threats, or threats to the rule of law?

Constance Trepanier discusses the increasing use of repression in France in a time of social, economic and migrant crises.

After thorough investigation, the Défenseur des Droits, Jacques Toubon, released his 2018 Annual Report on 12 March, which was subsequently shared with President Macron and the French Parliament. The Défenseur des Droits (Defender of Rights) is an independent post within French government, and a key civil rights actor in France. In accordance with institutional rules, the current incumbent – Jacques Toubon – was appointed by former President François Hollande for a six-year mandate. One aspect of his mission consists in defending the rights of public service users in France. Moreover, the Defender of Rights is given other responsibilities such as fighting against discrimination and ensuring that security forces follow ethical standards.

In addition to serving as a mediator in conflict resolution, the Defender of Rights publishes an annual summary report – this year’s is particularly important, as its activities encompass the beginning of the yellow vests movement and the extensive confrontations between security forces and demonstrators. It also covers serious and life-threatening injuries during demonstrations and numerous accounts of police violence against migrants. Although most parts of the report focus on the ineffectiveness of public services, a large section highlights misconduct in security forces and condemns the escalation of demonstrations and the disproportionate use of violence. The report illustrates these dynamics in two key situations: the police response to demonstrations and migration flows.

As a general comment, Toubon expressed his concern regarding the “reinforcement of the use of repression in France” and the collapse of the classical French “civic freedoms”. In fact, the report accuses the state of implementing a “policy of strengthened security and repression”, especially when dealing with migrants and anti-government protesters. Furthermore, Toubon states that “fundamental rights and liberties have been…undermined and weakened by security measures aimed at controlling public spaces”.

The main issue raised in the report is the growing atmosphere of suspicion and “securitisation”: the process by which decision-makers, usually within government, label certain individuals or groups as threats to the state. By transforming these subjects into matters of ‘security’, they legitimise exceptional or disproportionate means of treating people like “problems” to be “dealt with”, despite the State of Emergency having ended in 2017. This securitisation and the subsequent reinforcement of repression is exemplified in two circumstances: the yellow vest demonstrations and the migrant crisis.

This security mindset, Toubon observes, has resulted in a number of specific issues. One of the first concerns raised is the unprecedented number of preventive arrests and takings into custody in the context of demonstrations. Toubon also criticises the way in which the French police maintain order and especially condemn the controversial use of flash-ball guns. The report acknowledges that “inadmissible misbehaviour and violence legitimately requires a response on the part of security forces”, but it adds that this response should be “in compliance with the rules on the use of force only if necessary and strictly proportionate”.

Similarly, the logic of securitisation has enabled the State to pursue a policy that criminalises migrants and any attempt to assist them. This attitude is reflected in the academic literature on national security, in which scholars argue that the category of ‘migrants’ and ‘terrorists’ are often blurred to legitimise anti-migrant discourse and policy. According to Toubon, a deterrence policy against migration is becoming increasingly common. In Northern France, for instance, points de fixation (migrant camps) are repeatedly raided and destroyed. Displaced people also face unending police brutality; these measures ultimately force migrants to live in sub-human conditions and encourage life-threatening attempts to reach the UK.

Alongside the condemnation of these specific issues, the report sheds light on a profound and troubling subject. Toubon explains that controversial violations mentioned above “seem to be consistent with the measures of the State of the Emergency” declared after the November 2015 attacks but ended two years later in 2017. The issue at stake here is that the State of the Emergency has been substituted by pieces of legislation. That is to say, exceptional measures and provisions have been incorporated into common law, inevitably undermining the rule of law itself.

The 2017 anti-terrorism law consented to allow house arrests. Furthermore, following the adoption on 12 March of the ‘anti-wreckers’ law, officials are now allowed to ban certain individuals from demonstrating and to forbid protesters from covering their faces in public. On this issue, Toubon comments that “the re-emergence of the terrorist threat and the implementation of the State of the Emergency gave security challenges the highest priority, sometimes to the detriment of freedoms such as the freedom to demonstrate”.

In view of the report, the French Interior Minister, Christophe Castaner, rejected the accusations. In fact, he questioned the concerns raised by Toubon, even though his post is strictly independent. Furthermore, Castaner re-asserted that security forces are the ones under attack, and that the police have a right to self-defence.

Following the 18th week of demonstrations, growing tensions are taking hold; some side with the report, while others criticise the government for not repressing violent protesters enough – thus condemning what they see as laissez-faire policing. Similarly, public opinion itself remains divided; many are outraged by police misconduct while others qualify security forces’ response underlining their exhaustion after 19 weeks of protests and the chaotic nature of the situation.

Despite the report’s significance, President Macron remains in denial. During a recent debate, he commented that he refuses to use the term ‘repression’ in reference to the police. He stated: “Do not speak of ‘repression’ or ‘police brutality’; these words are unacceptable in a constitutional State; you talk to me about ‘repression’, I tell you ‘it is not true’”.

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