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French MPs pass controversial law that restricts images of police

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By Matthew Holroyd
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Police evict a group of people in the Vauban park in Lille, northern France. March 30, 2021.
Police evict a group of people in the Vauban park in Lille, northern France. March 30, 2021.   -   Copyright  Michel Spingler/AP
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French lawmakers have given their final support for a controversial "global security" law which has sparked widespread demonstrations.

The bill is centred on "Article 24", which will make it an offence to maliciously share images that identify police officers in operation by face or name.

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said the law would protect police officers from online calls for violence. Police unions have also expressed their support for the measures.

But the legislation has been widely criticised by both humans rights and media organisations who say that it would curtail press freedom and lead to less police accountability.

Thousands of French citizens had demonstrated against the original bill and increased incidents of police violence at nationwide rallies in November.

The rallies prompted the French government to announce a "complete new rewrite" of the contested article, which had originally been approved by the country's Senate.

Under Article 24, it will be an offence to disseminate images of national police officers or gendarmes if there is intention or "provocation" to identify them.

Any shared videos with malicious intent to identify the spouse, partner, or child of a police or customs officer will also be punished.

Those found guilty could face a sentence of up to five years in prison and a €75,000 fine.

This has been increased from the original legislation, which carried a sentence of one year and a €45,000 fine.

The law states that an offending person must have "the obvious aim of damaging the physical or psychological integrity" of the police officer in question.

But the provisions have still faced opposition from NGOs including Reporters without Borders (RSF) and Amnesty International France, who were among those that encouraged people to go to the protests.

"This law sets up a broad surveillance of the French population, including by drones," said Anne-Sophie Simpere, advocacy officer for Amnesty International France, referring to another provision of the new law, which allows authorities to use drones to monitor crowds of demonstrators.

"It's a threat to the right to privacy, but also to the right to protest. Many people don't want to be filmed and recorded by the state when they go to a protest, so this will have a deterrent effect on demonstrations," Simpere told Euronews.

"The whole logic of the legislation is against human rights law, which is supposed to protect the population against the abusive state and to protect the right to privacy, the right to freedom of expression and the right to inform," she said.

'Slippery measure'

Journalists have particularly expressed concern that they are endangered by filming police officers during their work at protests.

Pauline Adès-Mével, editors-in-chief of RSF, told Euronews in December that the “intent to harm” provision was still a “slippery measure”.

"We totally understand what the police is expecting and we do understand that police need to be protected, but the burden is currently on press freedom and journalists," she added.

"We need some measures that allow journalists to do their job on the field without being prevented from going live, or to be thought of as having an intention to harm."

France’s National Consultative Commission on Human Rights has stated that the government has never intended to undermine press freedom with the bill.

Organisers of the demonstrations against the law last year said 500,000 people gathered, while the government estimated there had been 133,000 people present.

Dozens of police officers were injured at the rallies, which took place despite a national lockdown imposed to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The European Union has reminded France that journalists must be able to "work freely and in full security", warning that it would examine the country's controversial security bill to ensure it complies with EU laws.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights office and France’s own human rights ombudsman have also said the new article risks undermining fundamental rights.

The bill was adopted by 75 members of the French National Assembly on Thursday, where President Emmanuel Macron's LREM party has a majority. Just 33 MPs voted against the bill, while 55 abstained.

The law will now have to be approved by France's Constitutional Court before coming into effect.

Additional sources • AFP