The French Riots: An Opportunity for Policy Learning in the UK?

By Kajal Knight, Intern

Over the last year, the world has watched as France has become embroiled in mass protests. Last month, riots erupted after the fatal shooting of Algerian teenager, Nahel Merzouk, during a traffic stop on the 27th of June. Triggered by claims of racist policing, the protests were violent: cars and buildings were set alight, 45,000 police officers were deployed, and thousands of arrests made. Riots like this, or “urban violence” according to BBC News, are not unique in France. Just months before, President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform had seen peaceful protests turn to unrest. Whilst the French public appears to be in revolt, could a closer look at Macron’s crackdown on French protest laws better explain the police-civilian clashes?

Since the beginning of ‘gilets jaunes’ (yellow vests) movement in late 2018, Macron has introduced a series of laws which have tightly restricted the right to peaceful protest. As of 2019, protests must be declared at a town hall in advance, including the names and addresses of participants, from which the city police decide whether the protest can go ahead or not. Hence, according to Amnesty International, rights-based protests like those against the killing of Nahel Merzouk can lead to fines and arrests, even if protesters have not engaged in violence. This clampdown on freedom of assembly has woven a loophole for the police to use disproportionate force against spontaneous protestors and has protected them from public scrutiny.

The clampdown has raised concern across Europe. As reported by the Human Rights Watch in March, “the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association warned French authorities that ‘peaceful demonstrations are a fundamental right that the authorities must guarantee and protect. Law enforcement officers must facilitate them and avoid excessive use of force.’” This sentiment was reinforced in June, when the United Nations issued a press release noting that “the lack of restraint in the use of force against members of civil society … is profoundly worrying for the protection of the rule of law”.

The situation in France may seem far from Britain – Paris is 300 miles from London, with each country facing distinct cultural and political contexts. However, police misuse of French protest laws should be a warning to British policymakers, who passed the controversial Public Order Act on the 3rd of May. The Act significantly narrows the grounds for peaceful protest, criminalising methods such as locking on and tunnelling, with prosecutions extending to suspicion of possession of tools (“prohibited objects”) that could be used to facilitate these practices. The police can even stop and search those that they “reasonably believe” might engage in tunnelling or locking on, might obtain a prohibited object, or might be attending a protest.

The danger lies in the vague wording of the Public Order Act, which will allow for “suspicion-less” stop and search practices at “any demonstration”. Liberty, a UK-based human rights advocacy group, suggests that this will have a disproportionate effect on marginalised communities, who are already burdened by stop and search practices. What has been framed as a response to public frustration with Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion protests now threatens the public right to peaceful protest altogether.

Like the clampdown on protests in France, the Public Order Act has faced scrutiny from the United Nations, which has warned that “state parties should not rely on a vague definition of 'public order' to justify overbroad restrictions on the right of peaceful assembly,” whilst the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, has warned that the Act is incompatible with the UK’s international human rights obligations. When a leading international organisation for peace condemns legislation for its failure to protect human rights, it is clear that changes are needed. However, the Government has continued to support Act, whilst Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has said that it needs time to “settle in” before any amendments can be made.

Despite warnings from the United Nations, both French and British policymakers have failed to acknowledge the potential for increased police-civilian clashes under their new protest laws. This is more obvious in the French case but applies to Britain too; effective public policy is most successful when it continues to learn from all relevant policy outcomes. Although the riots in France may feel far from home, British policymakers should be paying much closer attention to the potential repercussions of protest crackdowns.

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