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France Protests Test Government’s Commitment to Rights

Respect Rights of Protesters, Investigate Reports of Police Abuse

Riot police scuffle with protesters during a protest in Rennes, France, March 22, 2023.  © 2023 Jeremias Gonzalez/AP Photo

Since January 2023, millions of protesters have peacefully taken to the streets across France, opposing a pension reform plan that increases the retirement age by two years, to 64.

Last week, as President Emmanuel Macron appeared set to lose a parliamentary vote over the pension plan, his cabinet invoked a constitutional article to circumvent the vote. The decision angered protesters and led to violent confrontations between some demonstrators and the police. Numerous videos, pictures, and testimonies circulating on social and traditional media suggest the police have used a seemingly heavy-handed, disproportionate, and indiscriminate response.

Rights groups and independent bodies, including the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights, have criticized French police for resorting to excessive force and for making preventative arrests that could amount to arbitrary deprivation of liberty. The French Defender of Rights noted on March 21 that “this practice may induce a risk of disproportionately resorting to custodial measures and fostering tensions.” According to Reporters Without Borders, “Several clearly identifiable journalists were assaulted by security forces while covering protests against” the pension reform.

On March 20, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association warned French authorities that “peaceful demonstrations are a fundamental right that the authorities must guarantee and protect. Law enforcement officers must facilitate them and avoid excessive use of force.”

Excessive use of force by police during protests is not new in France. In December 2018, Human Rights Watch documented injuries caused by police weapons during France’s “yellow vest” mobilizations and unrelated student protests, including people whose limbs were burned and maimed by presumed use of instant teargas grenades. We also documented cases in which people were shot and injured by rubber ball-shaped projectiles, and disproportionate use of chemical spray and “stingball” riot-control grenades.

As demonstrations continue, French authorities should respect the rights of protesters. They should assess whether police tactics used are necessary and proportionate, investigate allegations of excessive use of force, and hold officers responsible for abuses to account. Authorities should ensure that during demonstrations, law enforcement officials resort to force only when strictly necessary, in accordance with international standards.

Macron’s government needs to demonstrate that it is committed to the rights to freedom of speech and assembly, including the right to protest peacefully.

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