French lawmakers approve controversial 'anti-riot' bill

Thomas Samson, AFP | Protesters clash with police near the Champs-Élysées in Paris on December 8, 2018.

French MPs on Tuesday approved an anti-rioting bill giving security forces the power to ban suspected hooligans from demonstrating, in a controversial bid to crack down on violence that has marred Yellow Vest protests over the last three months.


Opponents say the bill, approved by the lower house of parliament by 387 votes to 92, contravenes the constitutional right to demonstrate.

Under its most contentious provision, government officials would be able to ban people suspected of being hooligans from taking part in demonstrations – without oversight from a judge.

Inspired by legislation used to crack down on football hooligans, the new law calls for a six-month prison sentence and a €7,500 ($8,500) fine for violators.

The legislation, if passed by the upper house and approved by the constitutional council, would also allow fines of €15,000 ($17,000) and a one-year prison term for demonstrators covering or masking their faces to escape identification.

It would also hand French police greater powers to search would-be demonstrators for weapons.

The bill’s approval follows 12 weeks of protests by anti-government demonstrators known as the Yellow Vests because of their distinctive florescent yellow jackets.

The protests began in November against rising fuel taxes, but quickly spiralled into a wider movement in opposition to President Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker, accused by critics of being out of touch with ordinary people.

Unusually, some 50 MPs from Macron’s own party, the Republic on the Move (LREM), abstained from voting in favour of the legislation on Tuesday in a sign of divisions within the group.

Banning people from demonstrating without judicial oversight “could be wrongly used in the future by an ill-intentioned regime, from the extreme right for example,” LREM MP Matthieu Orphelin warned ahead of the vote.

“The main thing is that there were no votes against,” Gilles Le Gendre, who heads LREM's parliamentary group, told reporters after the vote on Tuesday.

'Freedom killing'

In several cities, especially Paris, weekly protests on Saturdays by Yellow Vests have descended into violence.

Rioters in the capital torched cars and looted shops in early December, and also attacked the Arc de Triomphe monument.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner on Monday denied that the bill under discussion was “freedom killing”, arguing that it was needed in response to “a handful of hooligans who threaten our right to demonstrate”.

The bill is expected to return to the upper house of parliament on March 12.

France adopted a similar, though much tougher, law in 1970, two years after the widespread civil unrest of May 1968.

Socialist President Francois Mitterrand scrapped that law, which allowed prison sentences of one to five years for violent demonstrators, a few months after taking office in 1981.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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