Macron's repressive 'security' bill is old news to France's communities of colour

Macron's repressive 'security' bill is old news to France's communities of colour
Comment: Journalists are right to protest Macron's 'global security bill', but they are collateral damage. The real target is France's communities of colour, writes Sahar Amarir.
6 min read
07 Dec, 2020
'Journalists feel particularly at risk because of this bill, and rightly so' writes Amarir [Getty]

France has recently become the subject of heightened international scrutiny, and at the centre of a series of polemics that have unexpectedly taken on global proportions. This follows President Macron's highly controversial stances on Islam and Islamism following the beheading of teacher, Samuel Paty almost two months ago.

France - a country that garners an unusually low level of foreign interest in its domestic politics, despite being an economic superpower - has found itself at the centre of an international backlash that few could have predicted.

And so it's in the context of this spike in interest in French domestic policy that the world discovered the "Global Security bill" and what it entails for French citizens and journalists in terms of infringing on their fundamental liberties.

Such democratic regression in France - a country that likes to hold itself up a bastion of civil liberties - seemed to register a surprising level of disbelief, and even shock among the international press. But for French activists, this bill is an additional attack on individual freedoms, just one in a list of many others that anchor it in a now well known stable of illiberal policies.

What brought special attention to this bill was article 24, that would potentially enable French authorities to criminalise sharing pictures and videos where police officers can be identified. It is couched in deliberately vague language to allow for different interpretations and applications. This explains why the government has insisted for so long on the initial wording, claiming journalists would indeed be able to share those videos, just not use them to incite violence against police officers or endanger them.

For French activists, this bill is an additional attack on individual freedoms, just one in a list of many others

French journalists, of course, still protested, knowing full well how loosely such a law could be applied, but also because they have now been confronted with restrictions and violence from police officers on the ground for years, even more so since the beginning of the Yellow Vest movement two years ago. 

In fact, instances of journalists being physically attacked and having their material destroyed are so numerous that they created "Reporters en Colère" or "Angry Reporters", whose goal is to denounce the working conditions many French journalists face, as well as repression at the hands of French authorities. This repression encompasses a broad spectrum of action, from destruction of material to harassment, to physical attacks. It is now clear that France's journalists overwhelmingly distrust the government with their safety, and with freedom of press.

Journalists feel particularly at risk because of this bill, and rightly so. However, they are collateral damage, and not the initial target.

When the Yellow Vest movement began and instances of police violence against protestors and journalists started being more frequently reported, one group of the population immediately and overwhelmingly trusted the veracity of these reports, and it was French people of colour, especially activists fighting against police violence among them. 

For it is this very police violence that people of colour have been critics and victims of for decades, only to be gaslighted, ignored or shunned by the rest of the population and authorities.

Now that the violence had begun systematically spilling over to the rest of the population - in this case mainly marginalised white people - all of a sudden France was facing a reckoning over a reality denied by many.

Police violence against French people of colour is nothing new. The French police as it is known today was created during World War II, and one of its first objectives was to help round up and deport Jews. In keeping with that history, it was Nazi collaborator Maurice Papon who headed the Paris police in 1961, when police forces killed Algerians defying a curfew to protest peacefully, by drowning them in the Seine river, throwing them over the same bridges tourists flock to from all around the world. 

The list of young men of African descent killed by police forces is long, and the circumstances of their deaths not unlike the police brutality we see in the United States.

Police violence against French people of colour is nothing new

In fact, Adama Traoré's death in 2016 is strikingly similar to that of Eric Garner - both were suffocated and indeed murdered in a similar fashion at the hands of the police. The tales of these deaths did not solicit the same popular outrage in France as they did in the United States, but the families of the victims organised nonetheless. Assa Traoré, Adama's sister, created the "Committee for Truth and Justice for Adama" and has been relentlessly raising awareness against police violence since then.

The committee reached out to many activist communities including the Yellow Vests, and momentum has been building, with the murder of George Floyd galvanising protesters in June this year in a rally against police violence. Actions against police violence in France were already taking place, but as echoes of Black Lives Matter in the US reached France, the government became unusually nervous. 

In one instance, the government tried to emphasise the differences between France and the United States when protesters began tearing down statues. The expectation of state violence is one reason statues weren't torn down in France the way they were in the US or in the UK: it is not that there is no conscience of the colonial past and protest against its national misrepresentation, but rather that what was possible in the US and the UK was inconceivable in France, because of the extent of police violence and the power of local reactionaries ready to justify it. 

Read more: The glorious hype and the ugly reality of French values

In the end, some activists vandalised statues of colonial figures, but did not dare tear them down. France's colonial heritage is yet another subject that is now the target of increasing attempts at censorship, and especially in academia.

In parallel, Amal Bentounsi, the sister of Amin Bentounsi who was shot down by police in 2012, has also been working on proving and denouncing police violence since the murder of her brother. She recently launched an app that allows users to record instances of police violence and immediately upload the videos, allowing the data to be protected and available, even if the phone is later confiscated or destroyed by the police, as is so often the case.

France is going through a general democratic recession, and has been for many years, especially since 2015 when the state of emergency was legally enshrined in French law and has permitted many human rights violations. This infringement on fundamental liberties is intrinsically linked to the government's wish to repress and effectively annihilate the anti-racism movement.

It is those organisations - activists and journalists of colour who focus on state violence against French people of colour - who are the main target. Freedom of the press is collateral damage, because without freedom of press, none of those individuals can effectively denounce the many different ways in which the state violently targets French people of colour.

Journalists and supporters of press freedom have rightfully been vocal in criticising this law. But they are, like French democracy, victims of the spillover of violent and repressive practices designed first and foremost, to target French people of colour.

Sahar Amarir is a French-Moroccan MENA researcher and political analyst. She graduated in Law & Political Sciences from Panthéon-Assas University, Arabic & Hebrew studies from Paris-Sorbonne University and Middle Eastern studies from Harvard University's Center for Middle Eastern studies.

Follow her on Twitter: @SaharAmarir

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