Home Europe French government plan to rewrite security bill has MPs up in arms

French government plan to rewrite security bill has MPs up in arms

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The French government is walking on eggshells, wearing combat boots. 

The debate on a hotly contested security bill that would, among other measures, curtail the filming of police forces, on Friday became one of the worst parliamentary crises of Emmanuel Macron’s tenure.

The bill, which was voted on Tuesday by the National Assembly and should be debated in the Senate in December, became a headache for the government because of its article 24, which would ban sharing footage of police forces “with the manifest aim to harm.”

Under pressure from civil rights groups and the press, Prime Minister Jean Castex said an independent committee would revisit the bill that had just been approved by lawmakers.

The move quickly backfired. Richard Ferrand, the president of the National Assembly, sent a letter to Castex to scold him on the separation of powers, forcing a U-turn.

Macron’s La République En Marche MPs vented their frustration in a Telegram group chat in exchanges reported by multiple media outlets and confirmed by a parliamentary official to POLITICO. “The parliament and the majority are not doormats on which one can wipe themselves,” an MP said.

In the hot seat

The controversial article was slammed by NGOs and virtually all media outlets in France, prompted comments from the European Commission and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and was criticized within the majority party. Ten MPs from LREM voted against the bill, and 40 abstained. “We’re slowly going towards an authoritarian state,” LREM MP Nathalie Sarles said.

Critics such as Amnesty International say that the notion of “aim to harm” could be open to misinterpretation and, ultimately, lead to abuses that could endanger freedom of speech for citizens and freedom of the press.

In an attempt to extinguish the fire, Castex announced on Thursday evening that he had set up an “independent commission tasked with suggesting a rewrite of the article 24.” 

But he just poured more fuel on the fire, telling his parliamentary majority that it was essentially overruled.

“Sometimes giving up is better than persisting,” Hugues Renson, an LREM vice president of the National Assembly, said Thursday night. “Obscure committees meant to save measures don’t work.”

“I told the prime minister my surprise,” said Christophe Castaner, former interior minister and current leader of the LREM parliamentary group.

The next morning, Ferrand, known for his loyalty to Macron, met with Castex and later sent him a carefully-worded letter to remind him of the division of responsibilities. 

“I know our mutual attachment to the strict respect of the separation of powers. In the interest of a proper democratic functioning, it is important that constitutional procedures are scrupulously observed, which implies that the parliament’s prerogatives are not to be trodden on,” the letter said.

“The government may consult expert committees at its leisure,” Ferrand added. “However, we concurred that these would not supersede parliamentary work.”

Minister-Delegate for Relations with Parliament Marc Fesneau also weighed in on Twitter: “Another article 24 (this one from the 1958 constitution): ‘the Parliament votes the law. It controls the government’s action. It assesses public policy.’ Here you go. Plain and simple.”

In a statement, Senate President Gérard Larcher asked Castex to simply give up on the committee.

Facing backlash from both chambers, Castex had no choice but to contradict himself. “The rewriting of a legislative provision will not be in the purview of this committee, as it is the sole prerogative of the parliament,” Castex said in a letter to Ferrand, seen by POLITICO.

The crisis is taking place at a moment of national tension around the security bill. This past week, multiple investigations into police forces were opened because of footage circulating on social media.

On Monday night, on the eve of the vote in the National Assembly, videos of the violent dismantling of a migrant camp in Paris caused shock. “Let’s change reality rather than looking to limit images,” said Fiona Lazaar, one of the LREM MPs who voted against the bill. The general inspector of the national police (IGPN) opened three investigations into alleged misuse of force.

On Thursday, video footage emerged showing three policemen beating and tear-gassing Michel Zecler, a Black music producer, in his Paris office for several minutes. The video, published by the digital outlet Loopsider, was seen more than 20 million times in 24 hours on various social media platforms. 

The three policemen and another who was involved in the incident, which took place last Saturday, were suspended Thursday. The Paris prosecutor asked the IGPN to conduct an investigation into the policemen for “violence and forgery.”

A “march for liberties” on Saturday could be the next test for the government, especially as protesters and police leaders in Paris disagree on what kind of demo it should be. 

Citing COVID-19 restrictions, Paris police prefect Didier Lallement said the protest couldn’t be a march and that he was forbidding protesters from going from Place de la République, where it is slated to start, to Place de la Bastille. 

“The protest can take place in Place de la République,” Lallement said.

“We will go and we will march to defend freedom,” protest organizers, who include journalists, unions and NGOs, said to Lallement in an open letter. “Because history is watching us. Because the world is watching us.”

Elisa Braun contributed reporting.

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