France accused of ‘repression’ policy to quell protests

Riot police chase a ‘gilets jaunes’ protester during a demonstration on March 9 in Quimper, western France © AFP

Macron government denies rights abuses against ‘gilets jaunes’

Victor Mallet in Paris

The French state under Emmanuel Macron has been accused of “strengthening security and repression” not only to tackle terrorist threats but also to deal with anti-government gilets jaunes protesters and migrants.

In his 2018 annual report released on Tuesday, Jacques Toubon, the official rights defender or national ombudsman, complained of an unprecedented number of preventive arrests that appeared to be an extension of the anti-terror state of emergency imposed in 2015 and supposedly ended in 2017.

“In France, along with the decline of public services, a policy of strengthened security and repression has taken root in the face of the terrorist threat, social troubles and fears about an immigration crisis,” the report said.

It concluded that a security mindset had contributed to the formulation of a new legal approach, based on suspicion, “in which fundamental rights and liberties have been to a certain extent undermined and weakened by security measures aimed at controlling public spaces”.

Christophe Castaner, Mr Macron’s interior minister, immediately rejected the accusations. “For weeks, every Saturday, our security forces have been attacked,” he said. “You have to ask a simple question: ‘Do our security forces have the right to defend themselves in the face of the ultra-violence of some demonstrators?’”

Stanislas Gaudon of the Alliance Police Nationale, a trade union, said Mr Toubon had forgotten the “increasingly aggressive and organised nature” of the extremists of left and right, who had used the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) demonstrations as cover for their attacks on the police.

The police said 1,300 officers had been injured along with 2,000 demonstrators. Eleven people have also died during the demonstrations in traffic accidents, mostly at roundabouts and junctions where the demonstrations began in November last year as a motorists’ protest against a rise in green taxes on fuel. J

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The UN and the Council of Europe have condemned what they saw as the disproportionate use of force against demonstrators, in particular the firing of more than 13,000 rounds of rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas canisters.

Even some of the president’s own party members in the National Assembly abstained from a vote on “anti-wreckers” legislation that is set to become law shortly. It would allow officials to ban individuals from demonstrating and forbid protesters from obscuring their faces to avoid identification.

Gaspard Koenig of the liberal Paris think-tank Generation Libre, writing in the Financial Times, said the French president was “the progressives’ darling”, but added: “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.”

However, Mr Macron’s double response to the gilets jaunes — simultaneously cracking down on the protests and launching a “great national debate” on popular grievances — has found favour with voters, especially with shopkeepers and conservatives fed up with months of weekend disruptions in city centres.

Recent opinion polls show his approval ratings among the French, while still in the 20s or low 30s in percentage terms, have risen to the level they were before the start of the gilets jaunes protests.

La République en Marche, Mr Macron’s party, holds a narrow lead over the extreme-right Rassemblement National of Marine Le Pen in polls ahead of the European elections in May.