November 2020 – Article 24 proposed

French President Macron’s ‘La République en Marche!’ Party, which still holds a majority in France’s National Assembly, proposed a new amendment that was widely criticised as authoritarian. The article itself would have made it an offence to show the face or identity of any police officer on duty “…with the aim of damaging their physical or psychological integrity,” which is a caveat that the French police could exploit without reasonable judicial accountability.

Essentially, police officers could potentially silence any opposition by threatening to, or actively suppressing, the rights of political dissidents; the notion of free speech being a human right has been a controversial topic in France in the past decade, following the killings of provocative satirical journalists at ‘Charlie Hebdo’ among others.

The protests that ensued followed a string of several since Macron won office in May 2017, perhaps the most notable of which occurred in 2018, as the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ (yellow vest) protests became a substantial unifying movement against a wider host of Macron’s neoliberal policies. Lasting into December 2020, Macron and the National Assembly caved to most of the protestors’ demands, vowing to undertake a “complete rewriting” of the controversial Article 24. It seemed that in this case, the public outcry and sheer number of those disturbed by this attack on civil liberties was enough to meaningfully change policy.

December 2020 – National Assembly vows to rewrite Article 24

“[Offenders] are…punished by one year of imprisonment and a fine of 45,000 euros for disseminating, by any means whatsoever and whatever the medium, with the aim of undermining its integrity physical or mental, the image of the face or any other element of identification of an official of the national police or of a soldier of the national gendarmerie when acting within the framework of a police operation.”

It seems, then, that the situation we currently find ourselves in—following the tragic events of the last few weeks, from the killing of Sarah Everard to the callous behaviour demonstrated by police at the peaceful vigil in her honour, along with the Home Secretary’s new policing bill— is all too similar to our French neighbours’ in late 2020.

The bill, which the opposition Labour Party is more-or-less divided on, will give the police draconian powers, being able to arrest and imprison protesters who cause serious “Annoyance” or “Inconvenience” at a public protest. Forgive me if I haven’t quite polished my ‘history of all human progress relating to civil rights’ knowledge, but I’m quite sure that causing serious annoyance and inconvenience, at the very least, is the very intention of a protest. Still, who am I to question a government led by a man who has labelled a whole class of society as “aimless, feckless and hopeless?” In his mind we are an amorphous rabble who require Eton-educated authoritarianism to behave ourselves.

It’s important to mention that the bill is being introduced under the pretence of stopping protests during coronavirus. Critics on either side of the political aisle, however, have inferred that it is more an effort by the Home Secretary—our most esteemed and beloved alumna here at Keele—to prevent a repeat of the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. Priti Patel made very clear her views on the protesters, labelling their acts, such as toppling a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in the Bristol docks, or the vandalism of another statue, Britain’s most celebrated genocidal eugenicist, as “dreadful.”

Compounded by the Home Secretary’s reaction to migrant families crossing the channel by boat, ordering a grand fleet of warships to intercept, it is clear that Patel is opportunistically furthering an authoritarian agenda under the pretence of Covid security. Needless to say, the bill will not disappear when Covid-19 is foreseeably under control, so for anyone with the intention of causing inconvenience for the sake of progress, alone or in a group, do so with the knowledge that the government views you as a criminal worthy of a hefty sentence.

Article 59 of the Home Secretary’s proposal:

So, what now? Only time will tell whether the British people will react in a similar way to our French neighbours when their ‘security law’ was proposed. They did succeed in their objectives, after all. As citizens of the western world, we are lulled into a sense of exceptionalism, of “That would never happen here”, of course, until it does. We’ve been caught out before and judging from the Home Secretary’s intentions and our Opposition’s complacency, we may be caught out again. Protest is the most vital part of democracy and we ought to treat this bill as what it is: an attack on our most basic freedoms.