Paris protest. Photo: John Mullen Paris protest. Photo: John Mullen

Nationwide protests against Macron’s ‘comprehensive security’ law have forced a government retreat while reinforcing links between trade unions and social movements, writes Susan Ram

Since mid-November, tens of thousands of people across France have been taking to the streets to protest the Macron government’s new ‘comprehensive security’ law. Whisked through parliament and onto the statute books in a matter of days, this legislation has triggered a new crisis for an already deeply unpopular regime. Kindled by fresh camera-captured revelations of police thuggery, racism and extreme violence, anger at the new law – and its implications for basic rights and civil liberties — is sweeping France.  

On December 5, protests against the new law fused with trade union-organised demonstrations against economic precariousness and mass unemployment. By tradition in France, the first Saturday in December is a day of trade union mobilisation in solidarity with low-paid, precarious and unemployed workers.

In Paris, unemployed workers under the banner of CGT Chomeurs (the CGT, or Confédération Générale du Travail, is the most militant of France’s trade union confederations) headed a march of thousands of workers and activists from the Porte des Lilas to the Place de la République. Banners, placards and slogans embodied a convergence of economic and political demands: for example, ‘Pas de securite globale, de la securite sociale!’ (No to comprehensive security – [we demand] comprehensive social security!)

Similar rallies and marches took place across France, in a context of heavy policing and in some cases (as in Montpellier and Rennes) against official banning orders. At Lyons, protestors were blocked from marching through the city centre.

Further south, in Marseilles, demonstrators seized the occasion to mark the second anniversary of the police killing of Zineb Redouane, an 80-year-old Muslim woman.

On December 2, 2018, during the early stages of the Yellow Vest movement, Zineb was fatally wounded by a tear gas grenade fired by CRS riot police while she was at the window of her fourth floor apartment.

A just published independent report, drawing on video analysis by Forensic Architecture, a multidisciplinary research group based at Goldsmiths, University of London, provides compelling evidence that Zineb was deliberately targeted by riot police thugs.  

Paris: a military operation to quell demonstrators

In Paris, protestors assembling at the Porte des Lilas on December 5 found themselves confronted by a massive police presence comprising more than 6,000 operatives.

From the start, a peaceful gathering was sought to be provoked, impeded and blocked as part of what was essentially a military operation. Whether swooping to carry out ‘checks’, or making arbitrary arrests, or repeatedly blocking the route, or carrying out kettling operations, or belabouring protestors with batons, or turning on the tear gas and the water cannon, the agents of the state provided a salutary object lesson in the sort of ‘comprehensive security’ the Macron government is pledged to defend – and extend.

“I’ve never seen this before,” one demonstrator told journalists. “Everything was completely calm when – just like that, for no reason at all – we were given a blast of very strong tear gas! No one could believe what was happening!”   

Article 24: Macron in retreat

Under article 24 of the new security law, the plan was to outlaw the diffusion of instances of police action without first blurring the faces of the personnel involved. As noted in an earlier article, offences would be punishable by one year’s imprisonment or fines of up to 45,000 euros. The new rules would effectively work as a “gag law” similar to a measure in force in Spain since 2015; their primary aim was to block, hinder or render impossible efforts to hold police accountable.

It says something about the efficacy of protest, coinciding with two particularly horrific instances of police brutality, that the government has now been forced to beat a partial retreat on this issue.  

Police violence: why film and photographic evidence is indispensable

On the evening of November 24, hundreds of police descended on a makeshift camp for refugees (many of them from Afghanistan) set up by volunteers in the Place de la République in central Paris.

The improvised settlement, comprising 2,000 refugees and sans papiers (undocumented migrants) accommodated in 500 tents, was an emergency response to the clearance by police, a week earlier, of a bigger campsite on the outskirts of the capital.

Now, in the glitzy heart of Paris and the full glare of TV cameras, police launched a repeat operation. Horrified onlookers watched as police operatives set to work with their batons, saturating the square with tear gas as they wrenched tents from the ground, often with the occupants still inside. 

Two days later, on November 26, more shocking footage of the Paris police in action appeared on social media. A CCTV video acquired by Loopsider, a media outlet, showed a young black music producer called Michel Zecler being viciously beaten up by police in the entrance to his recording studio in the 17th district of Paris.

The following day, more footage came to light: this time a video (taken by a public-spirited neighbour) of the police continuing their furious racial attack on Zecler in the street. And the provocation? The young man had reportedly been walking without wearing a mask. 

France erupted in fury. On Saturday November 28, an estimated 500,000 people took to the streets in protest. Such was the outcry that Macron had little choice but to intervene.

“These images that we’ve all seen are unacceptable. They bring shame upon us!” he tweeted, before ordering his pugilistic interior minister, Gérard Darmanin, to go before the National Assembly (France’s lower house of parliament) and attempt some damage limitation.

On November 30, it was announced that Article 24 would undergo a “total rewrite”. Despite efforts to put a gloss on things (“This is neither a retreat nor a suspension but rather a complete reworking of the text,” claimed the official press release), the retreat was self-evident.

For the thousands of workers, social activists and ordinary citizens across France who on December 5 found themselves yet again face to face with rampaging police, one thing is clear: the Macron government has been forced to yield ground. Now comes the task of building on this small but significant advance. The need for a convergence of struggles has never been stronger.

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Susan Ram

Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.