This article was written in November 2020 and republished to Medium.
November 2020; we are exhausted. Countries are breaking COVID records daily, economies are crashing worldwide, in Europe we have Islamophobic debates in France, anti-black debates in the UK, women’s rights being supressed in Poland — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
On Friday the 20th of November, the French government placed what is truly the cherry on top of the cake. At 7:30 pm Article 24 of the “national security” section of French law was voted in by the National Assembly. This article plans to forbid and sanction “ the broadcasting by any means whatsoever and on whatever device, with the aim of harming their physical or mental integrity, the image of the face or any other element of identification of an official of the national police or military”.Such an act can receive a year long jail sentence and a 45 000 € fine. The text does specify that this does not apply to anyone with a “right to inform”, which translates to journalists.
Now, in France, Parliament is divided into two separate chambers: the National Assembly, which is the lower chamber, and the Senate, which is the higher one. Law implementation proposals therefore have to be passed in the lower chamber (Assemblee Nationale) before being submitted to a vote in the higher chamber (Senate). A proposal can be implemented into French law only if it is passed by both these chambers, and the Senate is known to be stricter than the National Assembly.
This law is therefore not official yet, and could be rejected, but the message is stronger than the power of just legislation.
Debates surrounding the recording and diffusion of police brutality on social media started rising within the government after the Black Lives Matter movement gained a new momentum following George Floyd’s death back in May of 2020. Indeed, France, like most Nations, is no stranger to police brutality and unfair targeting of minorities.
In 2017, a study led by human rights advocate Jacques Toubon revealed that young Black or Arabic men had 20% more chance of being stopped and searched than the rest of the population. This study also revealed that these profiles had a much higher chance of being disrespected, insulted or assaulted during those stops. France also has had many highly publicised police brutality cases in which men lost their lives, were physically and/or sexually assaulted leaving them with life-long physical damage and trauma. Debates on how to tackle police brutality inevitably rose again within the French government as citizens rallied to the street in support of anti-racism.
Following the events of this year, the government’s reaction came as a surprise to many. This law, was proposed by Minister of the Interior Gérald Darmanin, the same minister who had stated one month prior “I was always shocked when I entered a shop, to see one type of communitarian cuisine on one side, and another on another side” referring to not traditionally “French” products sold in all supermarkets across the country.
The lack of tact of this proposal given the current national and international political environment is not what people found most astonishing. Indeed there were firstly a lot of concerns raised by journalist unions and human rights advocates as to how democratic such a decision was. Questions surrounding freedom of expression rose, as many wondered if France, with this proposal, was really holding up to its reputation as the “Land of Human Rights”? These are concerns that were raised even within Parliament, where many judged the article as too unclear when it came to the interpretation of what counted as “harming […] physical or mental integrity”. Many even suggested the article be scrapped altogether as they anticipated the backlash, and questioned the fairness of this proposal for the public.
Indeed, when French police officers have continued to intimidate, target and show unjustified violence towards French citizens -especially minorities — for decades, it could be argued that they are the ones harming their integrity, rather than us. Darmanin has tried to explain that the real and only goal behind this law is to counter the hatred that the police receive on social media. But can we really blame people for being outraged after watching a video of a man dying because he was kneeled on for over 7 minutes as he cried and begged officers to let him breathe? Can you blame communities who get insulted, assaulted and disrespected by the police on the daily because of the way they look or the area they live in for growing tired of the treatment they receive?
Social media trolling and online bullying are some of the most pressing issues we face as a society today. And law enforcement officials and their loved-ones, just like any other human being, of course deserve to be protected from this. But, as many continue to raise, this proposal sends an extremely confusing and hurtful message to citizens, again, especially minorities who are oppressed daily by these same police officers the government wishes to protect. The only thing it will really achieve, is divide and widen the gap between law enforcement agencies and the general public even more.
What the police need is not more protection. It is reforming. They already have so much power, especially in France where laws that increase their level of power and protection are put in place every couple of years. And this power has been misused for decades. And every day, violence and conflict between the police and the citizens they are meant to be here to protect increases. This all needs to stop: and this is what social media is trying to make sure happens. By filming, sharing, tweeting, emailing. The goal is not and was never to destroy individual policemen’s lives, and people who do share videos with that intent should indeed be punished. But an entire Nation’s freedom of speech should not be threatened by the actions of a few. And when the only way that people have found to hold the people in power accountable for the violence they are allowing is taken away from them, it is only normal that we as a Nation are horrified.