French protesters demand Macron drop police identity clause from security law

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Pressure is growing on President Emmanuel Macron’s government to abandon a provision in a draft bill curtailing the ability to publish photos or video of police, after big protests across France on Saturday.

Demonstrators came out en masse in cities from Paris to Lyon, despite a month-old Covid-19 lockdown, in opposition to the government’s “general security” law that they said impinged on press freedom.

The minister of the interior estimated crowds of 133,000 nationally, while organisers claimed 500,000. In Paris, there were 46,000 demonstrators, according to officials.

The protests rivalled the size of the gilets jaunes movement’s early protests in 2018. While largely peaceful, small groups burnt cars, destroyed property and threw stones at the police. About 46 people were arrested in Paris, according to officials, and 37 police officers were injured.

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At issue is Article 24 of the security law, which will make it a crime punishable by a year in prison and a €45,000 fine to “publish, by any means and in any medium, the face or any other identifying feature other than their official identity number” of a police officer or gendarme “with the manifest aim of causing them physical or psychological harm”.

It is the latest of several government edicts and pieces of legislation introduced by Mr Macron in recent months to tackle crime and terrorism before and after a series of high-profile incidents including the beheading of a teacher by an Islamist terrorist in October and a knife attack in Nice.

Interior minister Gérald Darmanin has been pushing for Article 24 to address police unions’ concerns about officers’ identities being revealed online, or harassment. 

French media organisations and leftwing and liberal politicians argued the amendment was written too broadly, and that its real purpose was to stop the media from examining incidents of police brutality.

They point to an incident on Tuesday when police were filmed using harsh tactics to dismantle a camp of tents set up at Place de la République in Paris by migrants and activists to protest against lack of accommodation for the homeless. An update to a police investigation is due to be published on Sunday night.

In another incident, online media outlet Loopsider on Thursday posted footage of officers beating up a black music producer in his studio, and dragging him and other young men into the street with little explanation.

The man, Michel Zecler, told Loopsider he had feared for his life, and said he did not know why the police had followed him into his studio, although he admitted he was not wearing a face mask as required under Covid-19 restrictions. 

Mr Darmanin was quick to condemn the incident, saying he would request the officers be dismissed once an investigation was done. “They have sullied the uniform of the Republic,” he said.

In an interview with the Journal du Dimanche, Frédéric Veaux, who leads the national police force, said he was “shocked” by the Loopsider video, as were “all of the members of the police in this country”. He said he could not make a definitive judgment while the inquiry continued, but added the public could count on the police to “treat the events with extreme severity once those responsible have been identified”.

Mr Veaux pushed back on the idea there was a wider problem with the police force. “For me, the relationship between citizens and the police has not been wrecked,” he said.

“Splinter groups choose disorder, call into question our institutions, and actively foment provocations against the police. We have seen . . . inhibitions against committing violence against the police fall away.” 

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