In a desperate attempt to push back against the “yellow vest” demonstrations in France, President Emmanuel Macron and his party are restricting the French people’s right to protest.
The “Anti-Troublemakers” Bill
A majority in the French National Assembly approved the Loi anti-casseurs(Anti-Troublemakers Bill) on January 31. However, it wasn’t Macron’s own “La République En Marche” (“The Republic on the Move”) party that came up with the new rules on protests, but rather, the Republican right (the centrist party of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy), which has taken the side of the police in the violent protests in Paris and other major French cities. The French Senate—a body in which Republicans are still the most numerous—had suggested a bill in early January that already contained the most controversial aspect of the current law: it hands protest bans to administrative powers.
This does not mean that the prefects, who represent the central government on the local level (France is a highly centralized country), will be able to ban the organization of a protest outright; they can, however, bar certain individuals from participating. Individuals identified in a specific police file will be unable to attend protests (for as long as a month), even if they have no previous convictions. The decision will be purely in the hands of the unelected prefects put in power by the government. There is uncertainty for now as to whether such a decision could even be appealed in court.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner took the floor in parliament with a very Orwellian speech: “There is no reason to draw caricatures [about this bill], because in no circumstance does this law do anything but protect the right to protest.” There you have it: Banning the right to protest safeguards the right to protest. And war is peace.
The Anti-Troublemakers Bill also bans protesters from wearing a helmet, mask, or a scarf in an attempt to stop violent protesters from getting away without consequences. Anyone caught masked can be subject to a fine of €15,000 ($17,100).
Article 1 of the bill also allows law enforcement to search protesters for potential weapons, including hammers and pétanque balls. In action, this might mean that large security checkpoints could be introduced before a demonstration is allowed to begin and that police forces may intercept, detain, and search any protester at any moment in time.
Sacrificing Civil Liberties for Political Goals
This is hardly the first time that Emmanuel Macron has attempted to further increase the power of the administrative state in order to secure his own power. Just over a year ago, France passed a fake news bill, allowing for the direct censorship of news sources deemed untrustworthy during election season. Back then, Macron was still beset by the “MacronLeaks” affair that had broken just before the presidential election. The French election commission, which is supposed to be impartial, strongly urged media outlets not to cover the leaks and went even further by asking them to “not relay the contents of these documents in order not to alter the integrity of the vote, not to break the bans laid down by the law and not to expose themselves to the committing of criminal offences.”
What If Anyone Else Did This?
Some voices from Macron’s own party have been critical of the measure, but not enough to prevent it from passing. One centrist member of the National Assembly, Charles de Courson, who is not a part of Macron’s ruling party, summarized the issue very accurately:
It’s as if we’re back under the Vichy regime [the French N***-collaborationist regime of the 1940s, located in the south of France]. You’re presumed to be a member of the Résistance so we throw you in prison. Wake up! Wake up, colleagues! […] The day you have a different government in power—a far-right government—and you’re in opposition, you’ll see that it’s pure madness to vote for this text.
Indeed, this particular text is a wonderful exercise for the game “What if X had done it?” Had this law been passed under a far-right government with the same arguments in mind (and given its policies, probably also the same violent protests as an instigating factor), there would be international outrage, and perhaps even an internal investigation conducted by the European Union. But since Macron is a pro-big government, pro-EU “centrist,” we’re all good.
The comment of Charles de Courson should resonate with those favoring small government for more than just practical reasons. The question isn’t “Who is in charge of the government?” but rather “How much power should the government have?”—because on the day Marine Le Pen or anyone else from her party takes over, some people will get a really scary wake-up call.