When French police forcibly dismantled a temporary camp set up by migrants and activists in central Paris this week, beating its occupants and manhandling a journalist, even Gérald Darmanin, France’s hardline interior minister, said he was shocked. Images of police violence have become depressingly familiar in recent years, whether during the mass unrest of anti-government demonstrations that started two years ago or in more recent isolated incidents. What was remarkable about Monday night’s camp clearance was that the filming which prompted the minister’s response took place hours before parliamentarians were due to vote on a law that could make it harder to expose such images of police brutality.
The general security bill is one of several pieces of legislation and edits introduced or proposed by Emmanuel Macron’s government in recent months to clamp down on crime and terrorism. Article 24 of the bill would make it a criminal offence to “publish, by any means and in any medium, the face or any other identifying feature” of a police officer or gendarme “with the aim of manifestly causing them physical or psychological harm”. Critics, including much of the French media, say the aim is to protect the police from proper scrutiny. Public order policing in France is a hard job, given a tradition of violent protests. But accountability is vital to maintaining public confidence in a key public service.
The new provision is unnecessary as it is already an offence to threaten police on social media. The government says it will not curtail the work of journalists since any malign intent would have to be demonstrated in court. This is a disingenuous argument; the law could still have a chilling effect on reporters or activists if they are threatened with arrest. Mr Darmanin at one point suggested journalists should seek accreditation with the authorities before covering demonstrations, adding to the impression the government wants to bring the media to heel.
The Black Lives Matter movement has turned police violence into an issue of global resonance. But the furore over Article 24 also reflects the shifting sands of French politics — and Mr Macron’s lurch to the right with only 17 months to go before the next presidential election. It is hard to see Article 24 as anything other than an attempt by a government perceived in some quarters as soft on law and order to curry favour with rightwing voters and the police, who have long campaigned for the right to anonymity. Mr Darmanin even boasted he was fulfilling a “promise” that photographs or videos of police officers would no longer be published on social media.
Mr Macron has lost the confidence of many left-leaning voters who helped to propel him to victory in 2017. His chances of re-election hinge on expanding his electorate on the right of the political spectrum. So far, this appears to have worked, since no real rival has yet emerged on the centre-right and his popularity is creeping up.
The political repositioning, though, has left Mr Macron’s liberal credentials a little threadbare, even if he has substantial economic reforms under his belt. He sounds increasingly strident in his reassertion of secularism as a defence against radical Islam. The disruptive moderniser is looking more and more like a traditional French conservative, albeit with a Green-ish tinge.
The pandemic, an economic crisis and a string of terrorist attacks have, understandably, created a yearning for a protective state. But protecting the police from their own excesses is the wrong way to provide it.