The French president’s clampdown risks putting public safety above individual rights
Gaspard Koenig 4 HOURS AGO
Quick, name this country: criticised this week by the UN Human Rights chief for using excessive force against protesters, its government has proposed a string of bills to repress demonstrations, dissolve dissidents’ networks, promote an “official truth” and suppress content on social media. Now its president is openly musing about appointing civil servants to oversee the media and control the news.
Welcome to France, home of Emmanuel Macron, the progressives’ darling. The protesters, of course, are the naughty gilets jaunes, who could be individually banned from attending public demonstrations and put on a government watchlist under the “anti-riot” bill that passed the French National Assembly last month.
The dissidents, meanwhile, are on the far-right. Mr Macron has pledged to dissolve their (so far lawful) associations. Freedom of speech restrictions are being discussed for vile “anti-Zionists” to address a loophole in existing legislation that already outlaws anti-Semitism. Promotion of official truth is the inevitable flipside of the well-intentioned “anti-fake news” bill that passed in November. And a bill currently being drafted only asks social media groups to take down hateful posts, which already happens in Germany.
France’s interior minister justifies police use of controversial “flash-ball” anti-riot weapons by citing the violence displayed by the protesters. And Mr Macron told reporters that a new official press body would merely seek to ensure the “neutrality”of the news.
Financial Times readers have nothing to worry about then: sensible posts and decent behaviour are unlikely to put us behind bars. Surely we can trust a moderate reformist government to identify the bad guys and protect good ones?
Well, no. The rule of law doesn’t work that way. Tolerating deviant, irritating or eccentric attitudes that do not directly harm others is the very definition of an open society. By attempting to define who is allowed to write, speak, tweet or demonstrate, Mr Macron risks further antagonising his disgruntled opponents.
By responding to every social ill with laws that soothe mainstream public opinion, the government exacerbates deeper tensions. It is also laying the ground for far worse abuses — if not by this administration, then by its successors. Mr Macron’s claims to be acting to preserve conventional moral norms make him all the more threatening.
His clampdown on civil liberties is part of a consistent pattern since he took office in 2017. An October 2017 antiterrorism law substantially increased the powers given to police forces. A February 2018 immigration law weakened the rights of migrants and asylum seekers. In October, the French supreme court refused to halt the creation of a biometric database of detailed information on all French citizens.
Jacques Toubon, the ombudsman responsible for defending individual rights, has regularly criticised the policies of this government. François Sureau, a prominent lawyer and longtime supporter of Mr Macron, summed up the situation bluntly: “Fundamental rights are under attack”.
Mr Macron is on a slippery slope towards a kind of “democratic despotism” familiar to readers of Alexis de Tocqueville. It places general welfare and public safety above individual rights. This reflects a worrying global tendency of liberal democracies to borrow the modus operandi of autocracies.
We cannot be complacent. Prohibiting obnoxious content on social media is censorship. Gathering biometric data is surveillance. Locking up potential offenders before they commit any crime is repression. Wounding demonstrators is state-sponsored violence, and imposing neutrality in newsrooms is authoritarianism. Citizens should resist the impulse to impose virtue by force. The writer is president of GenerationLibre, a Paris-based think-tank