France’s authoritarian turn: Islamophobia and the security state

A wave of militant protests are crashing over France in response to escalating state repression. These articles were written and published by ACTA, an autonomous media group, and translated by Taisie Tsikas and Meriam Mabrouk for rs21.

Banner reads: Comprehensive Security Law: Surveil and Punish. Via @actazone on Twitter.


Hundreds of thousands of people protested across France on Saturday 28 November against the Comprehensive Security Law that would ban filming police officers and allow police forces extensive powers to use drones and street cameras. A video recently came out online showing the police assaulting a Black music producer and Black Lives Matter groups joined the demonstrations. It has now been announced that the bill will be redrafted in response to the protests.

Meanwhile, President Emmanuel Macron has announced the Separatism Law, a counter-terrorism bill that includes powers to force Muslim organisations to dissolve for promoting ideas contrary to republican ideals. On 19 November, the CCIF (Collective Against Islamophobia in France) was ordered to dissolve, baselessly accused of complicity with the murder of Samuel Paty in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a teacher who was killed after he showed anti-Islam cartoons in his lessons.

Placard reads: Your weapons against our cameras. Via @actazone on Twitter.

Comprehensive Security Law: surveillance and punishment

17 November: The so-called ‘Comprehensive Security’ Law is currently being examined by French parliamentarians. The bill, proposed by high-ranking cop Jean-Michel Fauvergue, former boss of RAID [Recherche, Assistance, Intervention, Dissuasion counter-terrorism police unit] is marked by strong and particularly significant measures.

Firstly, the use of individual cameras will change profoundly, especially in the context of law enforcement. According to Article 21, ‘footage captured and recorded by means of individual cameras’ will be able to be ‘transmitted in real time to the command post of the service concerned and to personnel involved in the conduct and execution of an operation’. Facial recognition has been possible since 2012, but it will now be practically possible to use it live during demonstrations through the use of ‘individual cameras’. Until now, these individual cameras were not accessible to the police, but they will now be accessible live, without any oversight.

Secondly, we must also note the importance of Article 22 concerning the generalisation of the use of drones in police operations. Drones have already been widely used in an unlimited manner during demonstrations, from the labour law protests to the Gilets Jaunes, and that was completely illegal. The state of health emergency [declared during the pandemic] was used as an opportunity to deploy these technologies of control on a large scale, particularly ferociously in working-class neighbourhoods. Drones will now be a legitimate means of surveillance during all kinds of police operations. The text of the bill is very broad, providing for the use of drones in the context of terrorism prevention, recording offences (without delimiting which ones) and prosecuting their perpetrators, and also for border surveillance.

We can easily predict that we will be seeing drones everywhere all the time, and that thanks to facial recognition from TAJ files [Traitement d’Antécédents Judiciaires, criminal records], they will be able to recognise anyone who has had the misfortune of being photographed while in police custody, or even when lodging a complaint.

Finally, Article 24 of the ‘Comprehensive Security’ Law simply prohibits the dissemination of ‘unblurred’ images of police officers during an incident with the intent to harm the physical or psychological integrity of the police officer filmed.

Apart from the text of the bill leading to the criminalisation of people fighting against police violence (this offence is punishable by one year’s imprisonment and a fine of 45,000 euros), thus breaching the relative protection afforded by the law of 29 July 1881 on the freedom of the press, the practices which will result from such a provision must be highlighted. In short, it amounts to the outright ban on any capture of an image of a police officer, because, based on this law, police officers will arrest any person filming them during an operation, even if it means releasing them with a reminder of the law after a ritual beating session in the police station.

On 17 November 2020, a symbolic day due to its correspondence with the launch of the Gilets Jaunes movement [two years ago], a rally against this law will be held. It is important to remember how much the Gilets Jaunes movement was marked by this way of documenting the repression, with hundreds or even thousands of videos of police officers beating, blinding and mutilating demonstrators. There is also a direct parallel that can be drawn between these two events: the Comprehensive Security Law and the media crisis that the state went through as a result of the Gilets Jaunes movement. This law extends the repressive episode that began on 17 November 2018.

This law is also directly aimed at activists in working-class neighbourhoods, for whom broadcasting videos has become a weapon, a tool of counter-power to demonstrate the systemic and racist nature of police violence. While video surveillance images are systematically hidden from families (as in the case of Ibrahima Bah in Villiers-le-Bel), those produced by direct witnesses will be criminalised.

In future, if insurrectional movements appear again, they will be repressed using drones and facial recognition. The violence committed by those who repress them can no longer be shown. Those who broadcast them will be prosecuted en masse, those who film them will be arrested and those who revolt will be locked up. When the police return to assault and kill people in working-class neighbourhoods, the videos will have to be hidden or posted anonymously to avoid prosecution. Videos that lead to the release of people wrongly prosecuted by police officers will be tracked down and removed by the police.

Tweet reads: ‘Everyone wants to film the police! Trocadero square doesn’t stop filling up with new contingents.’

Dissolution of the CCIF: Islamophobia and the Turn to Authoritarianism

23 November: Last Thursday, the CCIF (Collective Against Islamophobia in France) received a notice of dissolution from the Ministry of the Interior, giving the organisation eight days to issue its ‘observations’ in a mockery of due process. This dissolution, which Gérald Darmanin [Minister of the Interior] hastened to relay triumphantly on social media by specifying that it was directly based on instructions from Emmanuel Macron, is in reality pointless since the CCIF had already made arrangements to move its head office abroad in anticipation of this decision.

But make no mistake about it, a new milestone has been reached with this announcement, even though the extension of the grounds for dissolving an association provided for by the upcoming Separatism Law has not even come into force yet. This decision is the direct consequence of the escalation of Islamophobia and securitisation following the attack in Conflans-Saint-Honorine, in line with a now familiar mechanism. Just like in 2015, when thousands of Muslims were put under house arrest and had their homes raided under the state of emergency (3021 administrative searches between November 2015 and January 2016 for only 4 legal proceedings initiated), the same punitive cycle began again on 16 October.

As a faithful representative of the Republic, Darmanin justified the police operations carried out in the aftermath by explaining that he wanted to ‘get a message across’. Once again, we have seen an increase in the number of raids by authorities in recent weeks, which have been transposed into common law since 2017 and have been discreetly renamed ‘home visits’. In addition to this, there are the so-called ‘systematic obstruction’ measures, practised at low level since 2018 in certain working-class neighbourhoods, and involving a misuse of administrative control tools unrelated to terrorism (hygiene and security standards, URSAFF or CAF controls [which both relate to social security]), aimed at closing down places vaguely considered ‘radical’, ‘communitarian’ or ‘separatist’ (associations, Muslim schools, halal butchers…). If in 2015, there were some scruples about the idea of breaking down doors to arrest mothers and fathers in front of their children’s frightened eyes, in 2020 they are ‘getting a message across’ by going to question 10-year-old schoolchildren at their homes for ‘apologism for terrorism’. For years now, racist surveillance, profiling (remember the famous ‘weak signs of radicalisation’) and reporting mechanisms have been deployed in the name of the fight against radicalisation and terrorism, and have proven to be not only unjust, but also completely ineffective in preventing attacks.

It is this punitive logic that led Darmanin to pronounce the closure of the great mosque of Pantin, depriving 1300 people of their place of worship for six months. On 28 October, it also resulted in the administrative dissolution of BarakaCity, a charitable association providing assistance to more than two million people around the world. The NGO, however, had previously been cleared by the courts following a lawsuit against it in 2017 that was ultimately closed without further action.

The reactivation of the Islamophobic agenda with the Separatism Law a few weeks ago found a kind of unhoped-for confirmation of its narrative in the Conflans-Sainte-Honorine attack. Without even waiting for the judicial enquiry to deliver its conclusions, Gérald Darmanin hastened to name BarakaCity and the CCIF as the culprits to the vindictive media and to announce their imminent dissolution with great fanfare. The Minister did not hesitate to directly accuse the CCIF of being responsible for the social media smear campaign launched against Samuel Paty [the man who was killed] by the father of a pupil at the school. This version of events has been widely contradicted by several media outlets that have investigated this point (Le Monde and Libération in particular). Although they were contacted by the pupil’s father, the CCIF refrained from relaying the public accusations he had made, while recommending that he remove his video from social media in order to verify the reported facts and allegations.

Instead of recognising the CCIF’s approach as proof of the seriousness and professionalism of its teams, we have once again seen a media narrative dominated as always by conspiracy theories. What keeps showing up in this discourse is an imagined dishonesty among militants, a hidden agenda or a foreign stranglehold operating in the shadows. To this has been added a state discourse that literally criminalises anti-racist demands and the denunciation of Islamophobia, accusing them of distant complicity with terrorism. The sudden expansion of the realm of complicity went so far as to implicate the Observatoire de la Laïcité, known for its liberal reading of the 1905 law [that established state secularism], and its spokesperson Nicolas Cadène, who had even hailed Macron’s ‘remarkable speech’ on separatism. The Observatoire de la Laïcité was finally brought into line and did not hesitate to cut ties with the CCIF, which it had previously worked alongside.

With this dissolution, the government acceded to an old demand from the far right and some secular neo-republicans who had been demanding the head of the CCIF for years. The aim here is nothing more and nothing less than to bring down one of the main counter-powers working towards making visible the systemic dimension of Islamophobia (remember that the CCIF publishes a report every year in which it puts forward a statistical assessment of Islamophobia in France) and providing daily legal assistance to victims of Islamophobic acts. The interest of certain media and political elites in the dissolution is all the more clear if one recalls that many of them were among the defendants in lawsuits brought by the CCIF in recent years following publicly pronounced Islamophobic or defamatory statements. Across the individual cases it has pursued, the CCIF has been fighting a battle in the courts since its creation, a battle that has resulted in some important reversals in case law. It is partly due to its actions that we owe the case law of the Council of State in 2013 which prevents the exclusion of mothers in hijab from attending school trips, that of the Court of Justice of the European Union in 2017 which limits the possibility of banning the veil in workplaces, and the suspension of anti-burkini decrees in 2016. Consistently overshadowing this work carried out over the years, the dominant media narrative has constantly relayed fake news about the organisation, without ever taking the trouble to provide the slightest proof of their allegations. Here too a milestone has been reached in terms of disinformation: the Ministry of the Interior went so far as to make a fool of itself by confusing, in its notification of dissolution, the CCIF with the CIF (Council of Imams of France) and by inventing a treasurer for the association that it never had.

With a few exceptions, political responses have clearly not been equal to this radicalisation of state Islamophobia, which is nevertheless part of the authoritarian turn we are witnessing. From this perspective, we cannot separate the fight against the Comprehensive Security Law from the fight against the future Separatism Law, the first version of which has just been revealed. The latter notably plans an unprecedented expansion in the powers of the administration in terms of control and dissolution of associations (Muslim or otherwise), the policing of morality and discipline of Muslim families in the private sphere. However, it also contains an article that provides for the creation of an offence of ‘endangering others by disseminating information relating to their private or professional life’, which has many similarities in its wording with Article 24 of the Comprehensive Security Law. It would make it possible to punish the disclosure of information on the mere presumption of its potential consequences (and not on the establishment of an actually ascertained harm) with an aggravated penalty if the victim is a representative of public authority. Another article advocates an aggravated penalty for ‘online hatred’ by allowing such offences to be tried in open court, with implications for freedom of expression.

For too long, denunciations of Islamophobia have treated it as a ‘diversion’ tactic that distracts from ‘real problems’ or as primarily a problem with the media, without seeing what its increasing institutionalisation implies for the daily lives of thousands of people. The construction of Islam as an internal enemy translates concretely into an increasingly strict discipline of Muslim subjectivities and a quasi-criminalisation of Muslims’ visibility. But it also works, today more than ever, as a formidable way of accelerating the authoritarian and repressive logics that are constantly expanding to impact other people on the margins of society.


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