France passes a retrograde anti-riot law to deal with Yellow Vest protests

The intensity of the Yellow Vest protests in France, having emerged out of no established party or organization, has caught the government off guard. In late January 2019, the National Assembly hurried the passage of legislation that the government hopes, in vain, will extinguish the protests. The bill passed, but several prominent figures condemned the new law as ineffective at addressing the root causes of the problem, and as a dangerous blow to civil rights.

The World Socialist Website reports that the bill, which is to be approved by the Senate within a month, stipulates that:

Police prefects will be able to ban any individual from attending any public protest for a month. All that is required is that the government believe “serious reasons exist to think that their behavior constitutes a particularly grave threat to public order.”

Anyone banned from protests will be added to a government watch-list. The interior and justice ministers will be authorized to “put in place automated monitoring of personal information, in order to ensure the surveillance, at a national level, of those banned from participating in public protests.”

Police officers will be empowered, on the say-so of the state prosecutor, to search bags and cars of anyone at a protest or “its immediate surroundings.” This codifies into law existing practice: police now routinely search cars and bags of “yellow vest” protesters, searching for any object that they can claim might serve as an “improvised weapon.”

For the lawyer Henri Leclerc, honorary president of the French Human Rights League (Ligue des droits de l’homme), the Riot Control Law (la loi anticasseurs) is not a just a political mistake but political foolishness. He stated that the law is being implemented as a reaction to extreme circumstances, and that nothing is worse in French history than emergency laws (lois de circonstance) which amount to an admission of weakness on the part of the government. He pointed out that France had such laws in 1893-94 to suppress anarchists, and again in 1970 to suppress protesters. He contends that the laws had profoundly adverse effects on the justice system and did nothing to solve the problems they were aimed at. In the former case, the anarchist movement had no deep roots and faded out, and in the latter, protesters came out to the streets regardless. These movements were not extinguished by the emergency measures. He says that today it’s absurd to make a law against the freedom to protest.

Following the adoption in the National Assembly of Article 2 of the proposed Riot-Control Law (la loi anticasseurs), the UDI representative for la Marne, Charles de Courson, a descendant of resistance fighters, described the bill as pure folly, denouncing it as a return to life under the Vichy regime. He described it thus:

The administrative authority is going to deprive the individual of the freedom of movement and protest, under the presumption that there are serious reasons to believe that his or her behavior constitutes a particularly grave threat to public order. But what have we come to, my dear colleagues? This is completely retrograde. One could say we’re back under the Vichy regime! Wake up, everyone! It is pure madness to vote for this bill! Yes, I really said Vichy regime. The day you have a different government, when you are in the opposition, with the extreme right in power, you will see, my dear colleagues! It is utter madness to vote for this bill!

Charles de Courson’s reference to the Vichy regime was not made casually. The parliamentarian is the son and grandson of partisans who fought against the Vichy regime. His father, Aymard de Courson, conséiller général of la Marne, belonged to the resistance. His maternal grandfather, representative of Doubs, was one of eighty parliamentarians who opposed granting extraordinary powers to Marshall Pétain. Arrested by the gestapo, he was deported and died shortly after liberation in the camp where he had been detained.

Vote tally in the National Assembly: For: 387, Against: 92,
Eligible voters: 553, Votes cast: 479, Required for majority: 240

Translated and compiled from:

«On se croit revenu sous le régime de Vichy»: un élu centriste fustige la loi anticasseurs (“We’ve gone back to the Vichy regime”: a member of parliament speaks out against the Anti-Riot Law), Sputnik France, January 31, 2019.

Romain Herreros, « Loi anticasseurs: Charles de Courson évoque "le régime de Vichy,"» Huffington Post France, January 31, 2019.

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