On October 10, the deputies of the majority LREM submitted a draft law for “global security”. The National Assembly will debate it on November 4, with unheard-of, unjustified urgency. Its article 21 seeks to deregulate the use of mobile cameras carried by police force. Its article 22 seeks to legalise surveillance by drone. Its article 24 seeks to forbid the public to spread images of police officers.
We demand the rejection of these three measures, if only because they violate the fundamental right of expression (through demonstrations). This is not the only criticism to be made against this text, but it is the one we take up in this first analysis.
The confrontational approach to maintaining order
To understand properly the dangers posed by this proposed law, one must place it within overall practices of keeping order in demonstrations. There are two opposing approaches.
A first approach, “accompaniment”, as taught in the police training center or as found in Germany, Sweden or Switzerland, concentrates on protecting demonstrators, dialogue, and defusing violence.
A second “confrontational” approach, vividly evident since 2015 and strongly denounced ever since (for instance, see the 2018 report of the Rights Advocate), depends above all on dissuading people from taking part in demonstrations, whether by exhausting participants psychologically (herding them into enclosures, blocking or filtering ways in and out, tear gas or pepper spray, searches, shoving them around) or by outright physical violence (rubber bullets, grenades, charging them). This second approach treate demonstrators not as individuals but as dehumanized “flows” that must only be channeled, misdirected, held, or dispersed.
The “accompaniment” approach is theoretically compatible with our basic right to demonstrate. In contrast, the confrontational approach is in its essence frontally opposed to this right. And it is this approach which the “global security” law is aimed to reinforce, by giving the police three new technological means to further it.
Surveillance of groups on the ground
A 2016 law authorised the police and gendarmes to film their activities with “mobile cameras”. But one condition was imposed: the officer bearing the camera may have no access to the images. These may be used only afterward, when a particular event during the activity justifies it. This condition, according to a CNIL opinion, represents one of the basic guarantees rendering these means acceptable.
Article 21 of the “global security” law proposes to do away with this guarantee. Not only may an officer have access to the images he has recorded, but — more seriously — the images will be available not only after the events: they may be transmitted in real time to the command post. What is the aim of this real-time transmission? It is manifestly not to inform the command center of what is happening, because oral communication has been quite sufficient for decades. In our view, one of the main reasons will be to permit analysing images automatically in real time. Remember that police forces have been authorised since 2012 to use facial recognition software to identifier against 8 million photos already on file from prior encounters with the law any image they hold, whether from fixed cameras or mobile ones, video published online, etc.
During a demonstration, facial recognition in real time will permit the command center to inform officers on site to identify many demonstrators they encounter, already wrongly on file or from earlier encounters with the law, using data held solely by the police out of view of independent checks. This new tool will multiply certain police abuses against persons already identified: “preventive” arrests, forbidding their movements, pointless interrogations, physical searches, confiscating possessions, abusive behavior…
This will not be only an enhancement of the current situation, but a substantial change: at present the police can maltreat only a handful of the better-known persons whose faces human police officers can remember. This cognitive limit disappears completely with facial recognition in real time, which can bear on any, or nearly any, political demonstrator. This evolution is totally alien to the protective approach to maintaining order, but perfectly fits the confrontational approach.
Aerial surveillance of groups
Article 22 of the “global security” law proposes to authorise a practice that has become widespread, in violation of the law, in recent months: deploying drones for surveillance of demonstrations (a practice which we have just assailed in Paris).
This kind of aerial surveillance is utterly useless in the nonconfrontational approach to maintaining order: drones are no tool of dialogue or keeping the peace but, on the contrary, distance some police and gendarmes from the demonstrators, who can’t even see them. Conversely, surveillance of groups by drones fits the confrontational approach perfectly in two ways.
In the first place, as with mobile cameras, the images drones capture can be analyzed by facial recognition in real time, facilitating targeted action by the police against demonstrators already identified. Surveillance by drones also permits, more simply, to follow the movement of any “bothersome” individual selected during a demonstration, with the aim of directing ground forces to manage him. Mediapart recently gave a gripping example: the testimony of demonstrators who, in defending the public hospital, released a floating banner during a talk by Emmanuel Macron, and whom the police interrogated in a private home, explaining that they had been tracked by drone – before releasing them after four hours without bringing charges. Gérard Darmanin explains without embarrassment that in the “new national scheme of maintaining order” drones “are useful operationally as well as in their ability to identify troublemakers”.
In the second place, a more collective approach is now added to these targeted attacks. Drones are the ideal tools to manage the confrontational approach’s dehumanised flow. The view from the air gives the “flows” and “fluids” that we have become concrete visibility. In it appear clearly the faucets and valves the police can deploy to retain, redirect, or let run the human flow: water cannons, barricades, filters, grenades, and gas. The strategy of exhausting the crowds is quite delicate to manage without a comprehensive view, and the main job of the drones is to offer this view.
Worse, with a view from so high and so distant, the orders of the command center cannot but be disconnected from the most basic human considerations: often the demonstrators are nothing but points viewed from above, whose suffering and fear are invisible to view. The ideal conditions are jointed together to prevent the enforcers of order from being distracted by any empathy or moral considerations, so that nothing will hold back the uncalled-for violence that will dissuade the demonstrators from returning to exercise their rights.
Forbidding documenting the actions of the police
Article 24 of the “Global Security” law proposed to forbid the public to make public the image of the face or any other identifying element of a national police officer or national gendarmerie officer in the course of a police operation, and when this happens with the aim of harming his physical or psychological integrity. This latter qualification is supposed to reassure us, but don’t be fooled: the police already regularly forbid people from filming them even though they have the right to do so. This new rule can only render opposition by the police even more systematic and violent, no matter what the law says exactly. Similarly, this qualification will immediately be instrumentalised by the police to demand that social networks large and small censor any images of police abuse, to the extent that French law makes these platforms responsible for “manifestly illicit” images that they don’t remove on demand.
One must understand here again that that if maintaining order were done with an approach of protection and peaceability, this measure would be utterly useless. People wouldn’t denounce policemen and wouldn’t publicise images if the strategy used to maintain order didn’t depend on violence. The sole objective of that part of the law is to permit that violence to persist by rendering it practically incontestable.
None of these three measures would have any use in a nonviolent approach to keeping order, whose objective didn’t consist of attacking the legitimate exercise of a basic liberty, but rather to work with it. Even more to the point, these measures would bestow a new power in a context where contesting police violence is growing and where there is a crying need for democratic mechanisms of counter-powers and to regulate the maintenance of order.
This misguided act of the LREM deputies, with the complicity of the government and its allies of the center exposes a disconnection of certain representatives. We ask the national assembly to disregard these articles and to demand — this is also their role — from the Interior Minister a radical change in the model of maintaining order.