Security Bill Betrays France’s Core Democratic Values
Originally heralded as the paragon of revolutionary values—liberty, fraternity, and equality—France now engages in another exhausting struggle to define the limits of its promised freedom. On October 20, President Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche! Party, which supports a more centrist political agenda, sponsored “The Global Security Bill.” Two articles of the bill caught global attention: Article 22 authorized the use of drones to survey the public for “security” and the fight against terrorism, and Article 24 outlawed publication of images or videos that visibly identify a police officer “with intent to cause them harm, physically or mentally.” The bill, formed in part due to the pressure of police unions, provoked utter outrage from activists, journalists, and citizens alike; to make matters worse, after the National Assembly passed it on November 20, Macron only withdrew the bill on December 5, a lengthy time after its initial passage. Not only did the bill demonstrate that the nation would prioritize the police force’s approval over its people’s civil liberties, it also revealed France’s wavering commitment to its founding values by allowing the state to survey protestors but not protestors to survey the state. Indeed, though the bill supposedly improved public safety, it, in fact, highlights the French government’s failure to properly protect its people, and address police brutality through the lens of its founding principles: Liberté, Fraternité, Egalité.
After the November 2015 Paris terror attacks, the French National Police heightened its use of force against Black and Arab-origin men, a group 20 times more likely to be stopped by police than their white counterparts. France’s most high-profile police brutality case was the 2016 death of Malian-French Adama Traoré; the official autopsy report ascribed his cause of death to heart failure, despite having no underlying health complications, clashing with the family’s independent autopsy that instead listed the cause as asphyxiation due to being pinned down by three gendarmes (armed French officers) after his arrest. Nevertheless, in May 2020, French legal authorities cleared the still-employed officers of all wrongdoing. Then on November 21, history repeated itself after four officers brutally beat Michel Zecler, a black producer, in his own Parisian studio over a mask-wearing dispute - however, CCTV footage caught the beating of Zecler, which received 14 million views and a tremendous public response demanding justice for Zecler. All four officers were immediately charged with “intentional violence by a person holding authority,” and Macron, who in 2019 warned to “not speak of repression or police violence... in a state under the rule of law,” denounced the beating as “a national disgrace.” Even in a state biased towards the police and against minorities, video documentation of increasingly common racial profiling and brutality cases proves to be a powerful weapon against a police officer’s word.
Firstly, the freedoms of the French people must always be protected. Article 24 of the bill placed at risk journalists and primarily immigrant residents in low-income neighborhoods who have historically suffered tense race relations with police. The language of “intent to harm” was overly vague and wholly up to the interpretation of the prosecution. Hence, a prosecutor could charge someone for posting something as simple as an image revealing an officer’s face. Meanwhile, Article 22 allowed continuous, non-consensual surveillance of protesters, disregarding their safety and right to redress. As seen with the murder of George Floyd and the BLM protests across the United States, or the 2016 police and medical cover-up of Adama Traoré’s death in France, videography and protests are methods of empowerment that bring attention to societal grievances and incite change. Instead of targeting fundamental freedoms, France must target its own system—it must aim to preserve Liberté, instead of dismantling it.
France must also acknowledge the flaws within its police force. While its proclivity towards unnecessary force is inexcusable, the very structure of the National Police requires complete reform. The majority who join police for noble reasons become disillusioned officers without proper training—they do not develop crucial interpersonal skills, receive too little oversight from superiors, and adopt negative stereotypes about minority populations due to the force’s constant stationing in minority neighborhoods. France must work to re-establish Fraternité among all citizens, including police officers—it must reform the police system so that its officers serve as protectors rather than abusers. Rather than passing laws that protect officers that abuse their power, France should be channeling resources into restructuring the police department and acknowledging the issues present.
Finally, Macron and his state must publicly use the term police brutality and address its root issues; calling the November beating of a black producer “a national disgrace” cannot erase the consequences of his 2019 warning to “not speak of repression or police violence...in a state under the rule of law.” Instead, France must accept that within the nation festers deep-rooted racism against minorities. Though France prides itself on erasing the borders of race and treating every resident of France as only French, its theoretically admirable racial blindness clearly does not translate into practice, and rampant police brutality continues to thrive off of inequality. Egalité has not been implemented in the nation, and to cement France’s modern steps in the right direction, it must first acknowledge that fact.
The Global Security Bill again reminds us that even France, the incredible bastion of revolution and Enlightenment ideals, struggles to heal the sharp divide between the police and minorities during the digital age—similar to the United States. Both counties must recognize and remove the systemic issues that plague them, returning (or newly adopting) those three principles: Liberté, Fraternité, Egalité.