On Saturday afternoon, a crowd chanted the country’s famous motto “Liberté!” on the symbolic human rights forecourt that faces the Eiffel Tower.

That was the second protest gathering thousands of people that week, despite the country’s health crisis and lockdown due to the covid-19 pandemic. The demonstrations related to a new bill accused of obstructing civil liberties. As critics have argued, the “global security bill,” which received a first-reading adoption by the National Assembly on Nov. 24, jeopardizes the freedom of the press and could herald the introduction of a ubiquitous surveillance system.

The bill enacts unprecedented constraints on freedom of expression. One particular provision has drawn much attention. According to its terms, any person who publishes images of police officers in their duty in a way that could “harm” their “physical or mental integrity” can face a year in prison and a €45,000 ($53,300) fine.

That vague characterization of the potential damage is a real threat to the right of any citizen to document the activity of France’s security forces. This is occurring as videos have uncovered many incidents of police misconduct around the world. How can the police be held accountable for abuses and excessive use of force when filming them in action could lead to a prison sentence? The phrase “mental integrity” in particular would appear to give the police wide latitude to interpret any image that would make them uncomfortable as harmful under the law. The new legal provision would be a hurdle for any journalist trying to cover public protests, or any event involving potential police action.

Thousands of people protested into the night in Nantes on Nov. 27, opposing a proposal to criminalize maliciously circulating a police officer's image. (Reuters)

The interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, went even further, saying that in order not to be arrested, journalists who cover protests should approach and get credentials from the local prefecture. If implemented, that process would appear like a move to create a restrictive list of journalists who can cover these issues.

In response, the editors in chief of major national media outlets shared their concerns in an op-ed in Le Monde. They declared that none of them would accept Darmanin’s credential process for journalists, stating that “there is no credential to freely do our jobs on the public road.” Darmanin ultimately backed down, saying that journalists would also be exempt from the ban on filming police, but other concerning provisions in the bill remain.

The security law also expands the powers of the police forces regarding video surveillance, giving them access to security cameras around stores or in buildings and granting them the right to deploy drones equipped with facial recognition technology to monitor public demonstrations.

According to lawyer Vincent Brengarth, this constitutes a “reversal of our social model to one that we could name, without exaggerating, a police state.” That comment sounds particularly disturbing considering the fact that the bill was proposed by Jean-Michel Fauvergue, a member of parliament from President Emmanuel Macron’s party who was previously the head of RAID, an elite unit of the French National Police. The law seems to be tailored to satisfy the police unions rather than protect the citizens and their rights to exercise their civil liberties.

Several human rights bodies have warned France of this authoritarian drift. In a statement, the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights said that none of the institutions in charge of fundamental rights were consulted though “that text redesigns in a very alarming way the outlines of a security ‘new deal.’” The European Commission said it reserves the right to “examine the final legislation to check its compliance with the European Union law.”

The United Nations Human Rights Council denounced the law as containing "significant infringements of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” This is not the first time that the U.N. has urged France to bring its law into compliance with international human rights standards. It happened in 2017, before the adoption of a counterterrorism law that paved the way for other measures that seemed to take human rights lightly.

After the first protests against the law, a collective of unions, journalists, nongovernmental organizations and families of victims of police brutality published an op-ed denouncing the police violence protesters faced after a peaceful gathering.

But even as this debate was happening, a police officer violently beat journalist Remy Buisine as he was covering the brutal clearing of migrants in a camp settled in Paris. Thanks to the video, viewed more than 1 million times on social media, Darmanin was forced to react, saying he found the images “shocking” and demanding a report.

Following the unexpected pushback from institutions and citizens, Darmanin did not receive support from Prime Minister Jean Castex or Macron on some of his proposals. With the senate set to discuss and vote on the law in January, French citizens who wish to promote civil liberties and media freedom must continue to oppose it.

Read more: