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French parliament drops controversial draft law curtailing right to film police

The French parliament has dropped a controversial bill that would have curbed the right to film police officers in action, the speaker of parliament and leader of President Emmanuel Macron’s ruling party announced on Monday.

In an apparent effort to quell criticism, Christophe Castaner, head of Macron’s LREM (La République en marche) party, said Monday that “there is a need to clarify the measure”.

“The bill will be completely rewritten and a new version will be submitted,” he told a news conference.

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin had refused to simply withdraw the controversial article, saying before a parliamentary commission on Monday that police “are not protected enough”.

The draft bill had prompted protests across the country called by press freedom advocates and civil rights campaigners. Tens of thousands of people marched Saturday in Paris calling for the government to drop the measure, including families and friends of people killed by police.

Critics feared that the proposed law would have deprived journalists and others of a potent weapon against police misconduct – including videos of police actions – and threaten efforts to document cases of police brutality, particularly in immigrant neighbourhoods.

A provision in the draft law known as Article 24, which factored into Macron’s plans to court right-wing voters with a law-and-order message ahead of his 2022 re-election bid, had sparked outrage in the media and on the left flank of his own party.

Article 24 did not completely ban sharing images of the police, but made it did make it a crime to share them with an “obvious intention to harm” – such as inciting violence against officers – punishable by a year in prison and a €45,000 ($54,000).

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The bill aimed to prevent recognisable images of police officers from appearing on social media for fear they would face retribution for doing their jobs. The proposed “global security” law, as it was called, was partly a response to demands from police unions, who said it would provide greater protection for officers.

But the importance of documenting police activity was underscored again last week by the brutal beating of a Black man in Paris.

“I was lucky enough to have videos, which protected me,” said Michel Zecler, a Black music producer who was beaten by at least four police officers. Videos first published Thursday by French website Loopsider have been seen by more than 14 million viewers, resulting in widespread outrage.

Two officers remain in custody but two others have been released on bail as the investigation continues.

Hardening of police tactics in France

Abdoulaye Kanté, a Black police officer with 20 years of experience in Paris and its suburbs, is a supporter of the proposed law who also strongly condemns police brutality.

“What people don’t understand is that some individuals are using videos to put the faces of our colleagues on social media so that they are identified, so that they are threatened or to incite hatred,” he said.

“The law doesn’t ban journalists or citizens from filming police in action … It bans these images from being used to do harm, physically or psychologically,” he argued, adding: “The lives of officers are important.”

A “tiny fraction of the population feeds rage and hatred” against police, said Jean-Michel Fauvergue, a former head of elite police forces and an LREM lawmaker who co-authored the bill, in comments at the National Assembly (lower house).

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“We need to find a solution.”

Critics noted a hardening of police tactics during protests or while arresting individuals. Hundreds of complaints have been filed against officers during the Yellow Vest movement for economic justice that erupted in 2018 and saw weekends of violent clashes.

Interior Minister Darmanin has countered that, out of 3 million police operations per year in France, some 9,500 end up on a government website that denounces abuses – a mere 0.3 percent.

“Protecting police and preserving freedom of the press are not in competition,” he told deputies in his remarks to parliament on Monday.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)

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