Macron slides into authoritarian territory with new “anti-thug” law

“What they are doing to the right to protest today, they will do to the freedom of the press tomorrow.”

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France’s National Assembly on Tuesday passed a law that restrains the right to protest, with 387 votes against 92. Dubbed the “loi anti-casseur”, or “anti-thug law”, the text aims “to reinforce and guarantee law enforcement during protests”.

Its scope and severity have stirred controversy. Across the political spectrum, people fear the law will dangerously limit the right to demonstrate and pre-emptively sanction dissidents. 50 MPs from La République en Marche (LREM), Macron’s party, abstained from the vote – a record for government-backed legislation. 

The law will now return to the Senate for a second reading, where it first originated in an even harsher form as the product of right-wing party Les Républicains. Despite warning lights on all sides of the parliament, French Interior minister Christophe Castaner insisted that the law is not specifically aimed at the Gilets Jaunes – “quite the opposite”. Rather, he said the law would “ensure that we can protest when we want, without enduring brutes”.

It will protect “protesters, business owners, cities and the police”, and will “prevent violence”, he added.

In French, “casseur” (literally “breakers” – or “thugs”) refers to violent protesters who only attend marches to wreak havoc. But over the last few months, the French government has habitually applied this term to the weekly marches of the Gilets Jaunes. When shops and monuments on the Champs-Elysées were attacked in December, Castaner denounced a “strategy managed by professionals of disorder and breakages”; a month later, he said that the violence at Paris marches was committed by “casseurs in yellow vests”.

The substance of the new law includes measures that limit and could even endanger the right to free assembly that Castaner said it was intended to protect. It will allow local officials, known as préfets, who already have the power to ban protests within their jurisdiction, to directly ban certain people from protesting for up to a month if they “constitute a threat to public order” – even if they have not been condemned for previous criminal acts, a power that was until now reserved for judges.

Banned “thugs” will also be listed on a criminal database, and their information will be added to the national wanted persons file. The interior ministry promises this information will be “deleted” once the month-long ban runs out. Protesters who have not been pre-emptively banned from assembling will be searched by the police, with vehicles stationed close to the march’s perimeter, ostensibly to search for weapons.

If this didn’t already sound draconian, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, Macron’s deputy, last year explained what else lies in store. “Concealing one’s face without a legitimate motive” will, under the anti-thug law, be sanctioned by one year in prison and €15,000 in fines, he said. Anyone arrested will have to prove they had a good reason to be masked. The law also provides that “thugs” who break things will have to pay for them – even if they have not been obliged by a court to do so.

So let’s recap: any protester attending a march would, under this new law, be considered a potential suspect. Covering one’s face at a march (even as protection against tear gas) could result in a prison sentence. Breaking a window or a road sign could result in blacklisting on a list for wanted criminals. And representatives of the French executive branch will have the power to remove a citizen’s right to free assembly for a month, without any prior court decision.

No wonder that even pro-Macron MPs refused to vote for the law. “If populists are in power tomorrow, they will be able to apply their policies without any problem under that kind of law”, said one of the 50 rebel LREM MPs, Aurélien Taché. The law “gives even more power to the executive, it is absolutely oppressive”, agreed his fellow LREM MP Martine Wonner.

Other MPs also warned about the danger of passing such a law. Alexis Corbière, from Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left-wing party La France Insoumise, denounced an “authoritarian downward slide”. The centrist MP Charles de Courson said the law is prejudicial to French liberties, and represents “a return to the Vichy régime”: “Wake up! Voting this law is sheer madness!” he exclaimed.

Amnesty International has condemned the law as “extremely severe”, adding that it “breaks the right to protest”, while the French commission for Human Rights (CNCDH) said French authorities “could not further restrain the right to protest without harming a pillar of democracy.”

Rarely did so many lawyers give interviews or write op-eds warning against the legislation. The Paris legal bar considered the law “a grave democratic step back” that goes against “fundamental freedoms.”  

But the most striking warning came from Edwy Plenel, journalist and founder of investigative publication Médiapart.

“What they are doing to the right to protest today, they will do to the freedom of the press tomorrow,” he cautioned.

His words proved prescient. One day after his declaration, a search order into Médiapart offices was sent by a prosecutor (named by president Macron and taking orders from PM Philippe), to uncover the publication's sources in an investigation linking the scandal involving Alexandre Benalla, Macron’s deputy chief of staff who allegedly beat a young protester during 2018 May Day demonstrations, to the Elysée. Médiapart refused the search, and proceeded to entrust the judicial system with the troubling recordings it had published.

Two independent counter-powers – the justice system and the press – are worried about the future of French fundamental liberties. If this “anti-thug law” is adopted in the months to come, the first will lose decisional power. The second might be next.

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.