The Speaker
Thursday, 13 June 2024 – 05:06

Is France Failing To Uphold Liberty And Freedom Of Speech?

NOTE: This is an opinion article – any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Speaker or any members of its team.

France has recently hit the front pages of newspapers across the world, but for reasons that are unexpected from such a liberal country. Under the leadership of President Emanuel Macron, France has been taking various steps in recent times undermining human rights — something which has been gradually spoiling the country’s image as the torchbearer of liberty and the defender of freedom of expression. The latest among these human rights blunder are a proposed amendment to the French security law and the dissolution of a non-governmental rights organization.

Dissolution of human rights organization

On December 2, the French government dissolved, in the Council of Ministers, the ‘Collective Against Islamophobia in France’ (CCIF), an NGO that combats discrimination against Muslims. This move will have a chilling effect on the activists and groups who are engaged in combating racism and discrimination in the country.

Nils Muižnieks, Europe Director at Amnesty International, said that her organization is extremely concerned about the signal that this sends to NGOs and the fight against discrimination in France.

The process of CCIF’s dissolution reveals a flaw in French law. Under the French law, the Council of Ministers can dissolve an organization by decree — something which paves the way for the government to dissolve an organization on vague grounds and without requiring prior judicial scrutiny. 

Under international human rights law and standards, states can criminalize preparatory acts leading to the perpetuation of a crime as well as the incitement to commit a crime. Furthermore, there must be a clear and direct causative link between the statement/expression and the criminal act. However, the French authorities have failed to provide any evidence to show that the CCIF poses a clear and imminent danger to national security or public order.

It is worth noting here that the Human Rights Watch, as well as other international human rights organizations and lawyers, have found CCIF’s work important in documenting the discriminatory impact of counterterrorism measures.

It is evident that the dissolution of an NGO, which works for human rights, puts a deep scar in France’s global image as the torchbearer of liberty and the defender of ‘freedom of expression’.

A controversial amendment to security legislation

In October, French President Emanuel Macron’s La Republique En Marche party, along with the Agir party, has proposed an amendment to the country’s global security legislation.

The amendment has been passed by MPs in the national assembly and is to be considered by the upper house, the senate. Although the French government maintains that the proposed amendment is intended to protect police from online calls for violence, rights groups and advocates fear that the amendment is incompatible with international law and human rights. The human rights defenders are particularly wary of two proposed provisions, Article 22 and Article 24.

Article 24 of the amendment makes it an offence to publish photographs or film identifying on-duty police or gendarmes with “intent to do physical or psychological harm”. This would discourage citizens including rights activists to capture on their camera any wrongdoing by the police. This would pave the way for the police misconducts to go unnoticed and unaccounted. It is worth noting here that the photos and videos of rights abuses captured by the public have played an essential role in the overseeing of human rights abuses. This is especially true when it comes to abuses committed by the public institutions, including the police.

In response to the recent protests against the proposed amendment, the French President assured that Article 24 will be rewritten. However, the protesters, human rights defenders and rights groups are doubtful about whether rephrasing the provision would make any difference. Furthermore, Article 24 is not the only provision incompatible with international law and human rights. There’s concern about Article 22 as well.

The security forces would be allowed to conduct unlimited surveillance, including of demonstrators, under Article 22 that authorizes the use of surveillance drones in the name of maintaining security and fighting terrorism. Such actions would be a clear violation of at least three universally accepted human rights: the rights to privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

The issues of both the proposed amendment to the security law and the dissolution of non-governmental rights organization have come in such a time when the incumbent French government, under Emanuel Macron’s leadership, is widely accused of undermining the three aforesaid universally accepted human rights.

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