The new police security bill: is France’s freedom of speech threatened?

Protests have erupted in the French capital against a bill that could make it illegal for the public to take videos or photos of the police. The bill intends to protect police officers from online abuse and has received the support of the lower house of parliament, but the Senate has not reached a decision yet. If it becomes law those who break it will have to either spend a year in prison or pay a fine of £40 000. A lot of people, from the general public to ministers, to Amnesty International have criticised the bill; pointing out that such a law could normalize and enable police brutality and restrict freedom of speech. The public criticism directed at the bill has prompted the government to amend it, by making it clear that the only people that will be punished will be those whose actions of taking and disseminating images and videos of police are clearly intended to cause physical or psychological harm to police officers.

Why the context matters

Recent events in France have made the bill all the more controversial. Last week a video was published by the online news site Loopsider, in which the black music producer Michel Zecler can be seen being physically attacked by three police officers in his studio in Paris. He was allegedly stopped for not wearing a mask and later on arrested for resisting arrest. During the attack, Zecler was also subjected to racial abuse. An investigation has now been opened into the police officers that conducted the attack, but this event brought renewed fears regarding racial discrimination and unwarranted police brutality, making the police security bill all the more threatening in the eyes of the French people.

Moreover, police officers in Paris were also seen violently throwing migrants out of tents in the Place de la République. The migrants had no other place to go and were dismayed by the violence shown by the police. This comes after France has imposed much stricter immigration rules, supposed to shorten the time it takes for migrants to get asylum, but which reduce the protection migrants can get whilst waiting for their asylum, in practice. Some see President Macron’s decision to pass this law as a way to challenge the threat that the far-right National Rally party, led by Marine Le Pen, still poses to his leadership; introducing stricter immigration laws in order to appeal to more right-leaning voters.

Consequences

In light of the two recent events presented above, the police security bill raises new problems. Many emphasise the importance of freedom of speech and of the ability for people to record instances of police brutality or violence. Critics of the bill have pointed out that such events as the attack on the music producer Michael Zecler or the violence the police used in dismantling the migrant camp in Paris would not have been made public or would have not even become known at all, had it not been for the ability of people to record and publish such images and videos. What is at stake here are two of the most fundamental values for the French Republic: freedom and equality.

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