‘Malevolent intent’: the battle for police reform in France

‘Malevolent intent’: the battle for police reform in France

A debate over photographing police points to the French president’s increasingly conservative turn.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

A controversial police reform bill that prohibits taking photos of police with “malevolent intent” has sparked sustained protests in France. It has also renewed calls for improved relations between French police and minority, often Muslim, communities.

KEY INSIGHTS

– Advocates for the bill believe it protects the police from harassment while critics say it harms their ability to hold the police accountable
– France has a long and fraught history with its minority communities, and police misconduct has sparked riots and unrest in recent years
– President Macron, who was elected by a core of centrist voters, looks to be shifting to the right based on his sponsorship of the bill, and he risks losing those voters who form the foundations of his base

Recent weeks have drawn angry and violent protests in France over efforts by President Emmanuel Macron to spearhead a police reform bill. The particular legislative article that has raised so much ire is less focused on police reform and more concerned about civilian oversight. The draft reform bill was introduced after several documented instances of police brutality, including an incident in which three white Paris policemen beat a black music producer. In response, Macron decided to rewrite Article 24 of a larger security bill, which prohibits taking and sharing photos of police with “malevolent intent.” Advocates for the bill say it will protect the police from harassment, while critics believe it impedes citizens’ right to document alleged instances of police brutality. In a similar vein to recent protests in the US, police unions criticised Macron for stating that some officers are violent. Macron likely feels that he has a fine line to tread between advocating for reform and protecting the pillars of law and order in French society.

As a first step, Macron is set to hold a summit to review community relations in France. Anti-discrimination training and increased dialogue are likely to be important pillars. However, it is unlikely that a series of meetings will solve the problem of poor relations between France’s minority community and the police — a problem that has stymied the growth and opportunities for many French citizens.

TONE DEAF

Photo: Jeanne Menjoulet/Flickr

While the three policemen responsible for the assault in Paris were charged, for many minorities the beating of the young musician brought back memories of the troubled relationship between police and their communities. France has a long history of discrimination against its minority communities, most of whom are from France’s former colonies in North and West Africa. Police misconduct has sparked several riots in recent years that have originated in France’s banlieues, or impoverished suburbs, of major cities. For instance, the 2005 riots that began in Clichy-sous-Bois, a Parisian banlieue, marked the worst unrest in France since the uprising of 1968. The banlieues are characterised by social isolation and lack of opportunity, and many do not even have direct public transport links to central Paris.

The security law comes as Macron has taken a hard-line stance on law and order, including making controversial statements about Islam and its place in France in the wake of Islamist extremist attacks. Macron has issued a draft law against Islamism and has called Islam a “religion in crisis.” This has led to protests against Macron in many Muslim-majority nations around the world, although Macron has denied that he is attacking Islam. While Macron is still poles apart from pursuing the policies of France’s far-right Front National, he has made the enforcement of laicité, or the constitutional principle of secularism, a key plank of his presidency. Macron has enforced laicité as a guiding principle that equalises citizens irrespective of their religions. Debates over laicité are a perennial feature in France, and the combination of race, multiculturalism, and religion is a combustible mixture with deep-seated passions on all sides. While laicité’s place in French society is secure, the security law poses many risks to Macron’s governing coalition and his ability to be the principal voice of centrist, more moderate voters.

THE POLITICAL RISKS AHEAD

Photo: Jeanne Menjoulet/Flickr

The security law and recent comments by Macron mark a shift to the right that risks alienating more moderate and centre-left voters. Continued unrest, which could lead to the vilification of minorities by those on the far-right, risks providing more fodder for the Front National — whose leader was sent to a presidential run-off against Macron in 2017 — as well as external actors to stoke dissent. Russia has provided funding for the Front National in the past, and any support to weaken Macron, who is staunchly pro-EU, would align with Russia’s geopolitical ambitions.

If Macron caves and revokes the bill, it would likely appease those on the left, including members of the Socialist Party and La France Insoumise (“Unbowed France”). However, the bill’s revocation also risks splintering the centrist core of Macron’s governing coalition. This core has always been tenuous, and Macron’s attempt to unify these disparate political forces in pursuit of his legislative agenda has been an uphill battle. As France emerges from COVID-19 restrictions in 2021, there is likely to be a reckoning over Macron’s handling of the pandemic and other crises during his presidency. These crises include the Yellow Vests protests that began in late 2018, efforts to reform French labour laws, accommodation with the UK on Brexit, and increased incidents of terrorism. Members of the Yellow Vests movement have joined in the protests over the security law and there is potential for a much larger movement to develop.

The security law signals Macron’s evolving legislative hand and the weakening of his centrist ideology as a governing framework. In recent months, Macron has relied on a broader spectrum of political parties and advisers of various ideologies to craft comprehensive legislation. Macron’s law and order campaign is led by Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, whose ideology is more closely aligned with the Front National. Described as Macron’s ‘guarantee to the right’ by Boris Vallaud, a Socialist Party member of parliament, Darmanin is a bridge to the growing public sentiment on enforcing law and order, which Macron has come to accept. As a centrist, Macron’s legislative hands have always been tied to a competing set of interests, which has weakened his ability to enact reform. However, in the current moment, the interests of law and order, public safety, and protective health measures seem to be increasingly aligned. This will likely test Macron’s centrist ideology as the window for engagement with the left continues to diminish. As a result, Macron’s legislative confidence is likely to increasingly come from the inclusion of voices on the right. This would define Macron as a centrist leader with a tendency towards a more conservative application of his ideology.

The risks to French society that underline the bill are both uniquely French yet universal in their underpinnings for greater economic opportunity and higher living standards. Thus far, Macron has been unable to decrease France’s high levels of social stratification and he has drawn many forces against him. Macron is a reformist leader, and his reforms are a bitter pill to swallow for many segments of the French population. However, the chance to craft a new social compact between the government and its citizens of African descent is a challenge Macron is unlikely to walk away from.