Dear Mr. President,
I am writing to present you with Amnesty International’s latest report “Arrested for protest: weaponizing the law to crackdown on peaceful protesters in France” launched on 29 September and convey our concerns in relation to the violations by French authorities of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly we documented in France.
This report is a result of a research carried out between June 2019 and August 2020 including five field research visits to France and interviews with sixty-six witnesses as well as lawyers, judges and representatives of the Ministry of Justice. It is also based on analysis of legal documents provided by our witnesses, media sources, videos and statistics provided by the Ministry of Justice, the IGPN and the Prosecutor of Paris.
Most of the cases are related to the Yellow Vest protests because this was the largest social movement that organized public assemblies in France in 2018-2019. However, the report also includes cases of people fined, arrested and prosecuted for participating in other large public assemblies, such as those organized by the climate movement (for example on 21 September 2019) and by trade unions to oppose reform of the pension system. It also includes cases of people fined for participating in small protests in May and June 2020.
Amnesty International’s research details how law enforcement and prosecutorial authorities have in response to social movements weaponized criminal law and resorted to vague laws to crackdown on peaceful protesters. While many protesters committed acts of violence for which they were prosecuted, hundred other peaceful protesters have been caught in the maze of the criminal justice system and faced fines, arrests and prosecutions without having committed violent acts.
The French authorities have deployed a legislative arsenal to arrest and prosecute protesters arbitrarily and to unduly restrict their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of expression, freedom of movement and liberty and security. In May and June 2020, the French authorities also disproportionately restricted the right to freedom of peaceful assembly to counter the COVID-19 pandemics.
Thus, between November 17, 2018 and July 12, 2019, in the sole context of the demonstrations of the so-called "Yellow Vests" movement, 11,203 demonstrators were placed in pre-charge detention. More than half of them were eventually not prosecuted. Peaceful demonstrators were arrested for wearing hats, goggles, and dust masks, or accused by police of organizing demonstrations simply because they had shared information on events on social media. We found that simply repeating a slogan can lead to a summons to the police station or even a conviction for contempt. Journalists, first-aid volunteers, and a human rights observer were also victims of such infringements of rights.
These practices have a dissuasive effect and constitute violations of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly in France. Such human rights violations have taken a toll on protesters and, more broadly, had a chilling effect on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly in France. Under international law, states must respect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, as well as freedom of expression. The right to freedom of expression includes also the possibility for human rights monitors to observe without hindrances the policing of public assemblies and to document and report any human rights violations committed by law enforcement officials.
In light of these findings, Amnesty International calls on French authorities to safeguard people’s human rights and to urgently amend the laws and policies that have been used to unduly restrict the rights of peaceful protesters, and to therefore:
Immediately repeal or substantially amend all criminal provisions at odds with international human rights law and standards on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. Organizing a public assembly without complying with the notification requirements and contempt of public officials must not constitute a criminal offence. The law that prohibits the wearing of face coverings in public assemblies should be urgently reviewed as its implementation in the aftermath of COVID-19 reveals important contradictions, notably, as wearing face coverings is a necessary measure to counter COVID-19. More generally, a blanket ban on wearing face coverings in public assemblies is at odds with international human rights law and standards.
End the criminalization of demonstrators who have not committed any violence. In particular, law enforcement and judicial authorities must stop using the provision that criminalizes participation in a group with a view to preparing acts of violence (Article 212-14-2 of the Criminal Code) to arrest and prosecute protesters arbitrarily. Parliament should amend the provision to clarify that only individuals who are actively involved in planning violent acts in a group can face criminal charges.
Ensure that any measures that restrict human rights, including the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression, introduced in the context of COVID-19 are strictly necessary and proportionate for the protection of public health.
On 29 September, Amnesty International launched an international campaign “Eyes on France” seeking to mobilize our activists and members worldwide to bring these demands to the French government.
We would like to take this opportunity to respectfully ask you to convey our message and raise these issues with French authorities in the capital.
We would also like to respectfully seek a meeting at your earliest availability and are available to meet you to discuss our concerns and recommendations in more detail and provide you with further information about our research and campaign.