Strikes in Paris. Image Credit: Hugo A. Sanchez/©Gulf News

French President Emmanuel Macron’s handouts to Yellow Vest protesters have damped the demonstrators’ fervour somewhat, but failed to stop the regular eruptions of violence, so now Macron and his government have decided to wield a heavier stick. The new rules being proposed ought to raise some eyebrows: They’re tougher than the norms that Kremlin uses to contain political opposition.

The shift from a conciliatory tone towards law and order began with Macron’s recent speech, in which he condemned extremists who had no right to speak in the name of the French people. “They are only the spokespeople of a hate-filled mob,” he said. Then, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced that the government would seek a new law to crack down on violent protest so that those who “take advantage of these manifestations to overrun, to break, to burn” don’t “have the last word”.

The bill, he said, would likely be considered by parliament in early February. According to Philippe, it would be similar to a measure the Senate, controlled by the centre-right opposition, had approved in October.

The main points of that measure, for which Philippe voiced support, would allow the police to search the personal effects of people about to attend a demonstration; ban persons known to the police as violent from attending protests, the way football hooligans on police lists are kept out of stadiums; and toughen the punishment for covering one’s face while protesting from a mere fine to, potentially, a year in prison.

France is the birthplace of the freedom of assembly: It first emerged after the French Revolution. Like a number of other democracies, France has long imposed some restrictions on the right to assembly: Protest organisers, for example, must notify the authorities in advance and can be denied; that regularly happens. Unsanctioned protest, however, is traditionally tolerated if it’s peaceful. Even police officers have demonstrated without prior notification.

Banned from public protests

Even Russia often puts up with spontaneous, unsanctioned but non-violent rallies and marches. Russia, however, has tightened considerably the right of assembly legislation since Putin’s return to power in 2012. It has banned people with previous offences against public order from organising protests, a rule that has been used heavily against anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny, Putin’s most hated political opponent. Navalny has been detained dozens of times on his way to rallies and has spent months in custody. Not even in Russia, however, can police simply put someone on a list of people banned from public protests. And covering one’s face, even during a protest that has turned violent and resulted in damage to people and property, is punishable only by a maximum fine of 300,000 rubles ($4,500 or Dh16,551) and 20 days’ arrest. The French proposal — a 15,000 euro (Dh63,498) fine and a year in prison — is harsher.

Russians try hard to avoid accusations of arbitrariness, which are inevitable when police decide who is allowed to demonstrate and who isn’t. And while it wants to deter protesters from trying to avoid identification, it won’t jail people for wearing a scarf to minimise the effects of tear gas — something that may well start happening in France if the new rules become reality.

Democracies too occasionally go overboard in restricting freedoms. In 2015, Spain passed a public safety law, which banned demonstrations in the vicinity of key government buildings, put in place large fines for photographing police officers during a protest and introduced other restrictions that prompted then-opposition leader Pedro Sanchez to promise the law would only last as long as the conservative government of prime minister Mariano Rajoy. Now, however, Sanchez is prime minister and he’s backtracked on softening the law as he faces formidable protests in Catalonia.

France, however, has no real reason to follow the Spanish example. It’s not clear that the French police — or the law enforcers in any democratic country — need any additional powers to curb the violence that accompanies protests from time to time. In the past eight weeks, as the Yellow Vest movement developed, French police arrested 5,600 people. What they need is enough manpower and equipment to curb fighting, burning and looting, not the power to search or ban anyone headed to a rally.

In a democracy, violence should be restricted and criminalised, but protest allowed. Macron must be careful not to go so far.

— Washington Post

Leonid Bershidsky is a noted columnist covering European politics.