France protest arrests: Are the police abusing the legal system?

Hundreds of demonstrators have been taken into custody in France in the past week in response to major protests erupting all across the country against the government’s pension reform.

After the first spontaneous rally on 16 March, 292 people were taken into custody and presented to the public prosecutor’s office, to receive a caution.

But only nine protesters have been charged with actual offences. 

This means that almost 97% – or 283 cases – were closed without any follow-up, or charges being pressed. 

“Arbitrary” police custody?

Questions are now being raised about whether this police mass-arrest tactic is being used simply to frustrate the protest movement. 

Lawyers, magistrates, and politicians are denouncing the “arbitrary” police custody, seeing it, as in other protest movements in recent years, as a “repression of the social movement”.

Some Parisians merely passing as protests continued over the weekend, have found themselves stopped and taken into custody without being given a clear reason why. 

A passerby gets arrested without a clear motive given in Paris.

The following day, on 17 March, 60 people were taken into custody: 34 cases were closed, 21 led to alternative measures — like a caution or a warning — and only five have gone to trial. 

What about the ‘black-blocks’ and ‘casseurs’?

One of the main issues with the recent spate of protests and arrests, is that police have not always been giving clear reasons for the detention. 

Coline Bouillon, a lawyer who assisted some demonstrators, explained that protesters had ”all sorts of profiles: students at the [local university], doctors, homeless people, minors, trade unionists, teachers, people who had just come out of a conference and were rounded up”.

In Paris, some protesters are taken to police station via buses on March 20th.

Protesters were then told by police that they were taken into custody for “participation in a group with a view to preparing violence”, or “concealing their faces” and remanded in custody for 24 or 48 hours, said the lawyer. 

She added that this practice is known as “custody-sanctions”, where protesters had “irregular files” against them which were “empty in terms of proof of guilt”.

A group of lawyers, of which she is a member, intends to file a collective complaint against the police for “arbitrary detention” and “obstruction of the freedom to demonstrate”.

An instrumentalisation of the judiciary?

In a statement, the Syndicat de la Magistrature (SM), a union for judges, also denounced ithe numerous police detentions, seeing them as a “repression of the social movement”.

“It is the first time that the French government has used the criminal law to dissuade demonstrators from demonstrating and exercising their freedom,” said Raphaël Kempf, a French lawyer specialising in judiciary repression methods.

Several left-wing politicians have criticised “arbitrary arrests”.

A recurring theme since the yellow jacket movement

This practice had already been criticised during the “gilets jaunes” movement. “The number never seen of arrests and police custody intervened in a preventive manner”, had been noted by the Defender of Rights in his 2018 report, citing 8 December, when nearly 2,000 people had been arrested throughout France.

Amnesty International France also published a report on “arbitrary arrests” during a rally on 12 December 2020 in Paris against the “global security” law – 142 people arrested and nearly 80% released without prosecution.

A Twitter account has even been set up to compile all videos documenting police violence since 2019. The account said it has chronicled more than 5,000 cases of alleged abuse since then.

Police troups use force on peaceful protesters, displaying disproportionate use of force.

For the past “fifteen years”, there has been a “judicialisation of policing”, notes Fabien Jobard, research director at France’s National Scientific Research Centre CNRS, who is a specialist in such issues.

In particular, he cites the so-called Estrosi law of 2010, which created the offence of “participation in a group with a view to committing violence or damage” – initially passed to “combat gang violence and violence in stadiums” but since used in demonstrations.

Between the “repressive” and “preventive” schemes, where arrests take place before demonstrations or before major violence or damage is committed, “the cursor is increasingly on the preventive side”, he stressed. 

Police forces do not conduct “unjustified arrests”

France’s interior ministry said on Tuesday “there are no unjustified arrests.” 

“We question people for offences which, in our eyes, are constituted”, a spokesperson said, but “48 hours (of police custody) to try to process the offence is short”, he added.

Have instructions been given for mass arrests? 

“No,” said a senior police officer told AFP news agency, and added that “when high-risk profiles are arrested, they are no longer agitating others.”

But with so many arrests, the “manoeuvre is risky”, adds another police officer specialising in these issues. 

According to him, they “expose the workforce, monopolise officers” and “risk radicalising the demonstrators”.


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