Paris (CNSNews.com) – French President Emmanuel Macron’s party is deeply divided over legislation aiming at stopping violence before and during protest demonstrations that have been roiling the country, questioning whether it threatens constitutionally-protected activity.
On Tuesday, the lower legislature passed the law by 387 votes to 92. Seventy-four members abstained, including 50 members of Macron’s Republic in Motion party.
Skeptical lawmakers see provisions of the law putting at risk freedom to demonstrate as guaranteed by the constitution. The law makes it illegal to hide one's face while taking part in street demonstrations, either with a mask or any other concealing article.
During so-called “yellow vest” demonstrations since late last year, some protestors – with their faces covered to hide their identity – have employed violence, with attacks against police, damage to stores and cars, and vandalism at monuments such as the Arc de Triomphe.
The new law targets people whose behavior is deemed to constitute a threat to public order, such as those known to have committed violence during past protests, or those in regular relationship with violent individuals.
An absence of further detail about who may be forbidden to demonstrate is the reason why many lawmakers oppose the new law.
Critics are also unhappy that the law empowers prefects – representatives of the central state in the country’s 101 regions, appointed by the president – to forbid a person from demonstrating, without the involvement of a judge.
Republic in Motion lawmaker Charles de Courson, who abstained, warned against “the return of the Vichy regime,” a reference to the wartime government that collaborated with the Nazis.
De Courson, whose father fought against the Nazis, congratulated the 49 other members of the party who also chose not to support the legislation.
“The laws that exist are enough, there is no need for a new one,” he told reporters. “To believe it would prevent violence is a mistake.”
“We followed Emmanuel Macron because we saw in him a kind of renovation of social democracy,” de Courson said, adding that when they perceived a drift in a different direction, “we sound the alarm bell.”
The vice president of The Paris bar Association, Basile Ader, said the law’s provisions preventing people who have done nothing illegal from demonstrating attacks “one of the fundamental freedoms – a freedom which is at the foundation of the [French] Republic.”
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner argued that the law was “common sense,” aimed at preventing “thugs” from acting violently during demonstrations.
French journalist Alba Ventura said in a radio broadcast that in France, judges usually have decisions on whether someone can demonstrate, not prefects or “the state.”
Prefects will be able to levy penalties for offenders – people who go ahead and demonstrate despite being forbidden to do so – up to six months in jail and a fine of around $8,540. The law will also allow police officers to search for weapons in demonstrators' bags, but with a warrant from a prosecutor. The principle of “who breaks, pays” will be implemented in cases of damage to property.
But right and left wing parties say existing laws are in place in cases where protestors break shop window or damage cars and attack law enforcement officers.
Marine Le Pen, head of right wing National Rally party, voted against the law, as did her party’s other five lawmakers.
“The law targeting those who come to the demonstrations only to commit violent acts undermines our great individual freedoms,” she said on television.
“There are aspects in this law that are characteristic of authoritarian regimes,” said Ugo Bernalicis, member of the leftist movement Rebellious France. All 17 of the party’s lawmakers voted against the legislation.
Bernalicis said there were 150 to 300 people known by police who are violent, and it would be easier to prohibit them from participating in any demonstration rather than creating another law.
The law will be considered by the Senate on March 12, and if approved in its current form will go to the president for signature. If senators add amendments, the text will go back to the lower house for a final vote, before the president signs the new version.