A pair of controversial bills coming to the French Senate this month have many worried about the authoritarian pandering of the current administration, leading up to the elections next year.
Some governments across the world have been using the Coronavirus as a justification for the passage of more authoritarian laws and cementing their own position in their national politics. While they have been using a variety of tactics to do this, most of those doing it could be considered the usual suspects, governments and politicians with a history of democratic questioning and political consolidation, who seem more interested in their power and the movements they lead than in the democratic norms and traditions – and in some case laws – of their respective nations. France and the government of President Macron has somehow arrived at the same policies, yet with entirely different reasoning and not being at all one of the “usual suspects.” Let’s talk about the pair of controversial bills coming to the French Senate this month that have all at once caused Muslim boycotts, regalvanized the Yellow Vests, and have academics throwing around words like “authoritarianism.”
The most recent of the two bills is what has been referred to as an “Anti-Separatism” bill, but for the most part seems to be a bill aimed at curtailing the freedoms of religious institutions and reaffirming France as a secular society. This Secularism bill has come under fire from some international groups and even led to boycotts of French goods in majority-Muslim nations, because many see it as an attack on France’s large Muslim community. While I won’t go into detail into its contents here (there are other sources providing a better summation of what it does, see some here and here), the most notable of the inclusions are the requirement that religious institutions that seek any state funding or subsidy sign a contract “respecting the Republic’s values” and local authorities will now have the power to temporarily close religious institutions “in which the remarks that are made, the ideas or theories that are disseminated or the activities that take place: cause discrimination, hatred or violence.”
Requiring that certain French institutions prove that they are French, as well as giving local law enforcement the ability to close certain institutions using vague or difficult to understand language are not laws we often see passed in liberal democracies, at least not states that continue to be liberal democracies for very long. Most nationalist movements in the last hundred years have begun by doing two things; argue that our cultural values are being eroded, and point to an out group that is either eroding those values themselves or is being catered to by elites that are willingly sacrificing those values. While this law might not be a “step too far” for many, it is still worrying that it is a step at all. As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt noted in the introduction of their 2018 book How Democracies Die, “Because there is no single moment – no coup, declaration of martial law, or suspension of the constitution – in which the regime ‘crosses the line’ into dictatorship, nothing may set off society’s alarm bells.” Targeting a particular segment of the country as needing to give further proof its loyalty (given its perceived susceptibility to foreign influence) is a dangerous precedent. Usually however, people that demand such things would need to extend the power and influence of law enforcement, so they can “better protect the nation against those that do not stand for our values.”
Which is exactly why the Global Security Bill coming before the Senate this month has people similarly worried. This new bill, introduced last October, seeks to provide further protections for police officers on duty. Explained here and here, the new security law gives the police stronger surveillance rights, and makes it a punishable offence to post the identity of an on-duty officer online “with the aim of damaging their physical or psychological integrity.” The French police have been scrutinized heavily for their use of arrests and force to stop demonstrations against this bill, with Amnesty International reporting that nearly eighty percent of those 142 people arrested demonstrating were never charged with a crime. The bill has also been criticized as making the jobs of journalists covering police more difficult, a point that was even recently raised by the European Commission (the executive branch of the European Union), saying that journalists should be able to “do their work freely and in full security.”
While the exact contents of this bill do not necessarily mirror pro-police laws we often see in declining democracies, this bill still works to make the police less accountable for their individual actions, which in turn erodes the ability of others to keep law enforcement in check. Strengthening the power of the police in a time which the police are under heavy scrutiny is not only doubling down, but is (willfully or not) ignoring the complaints of those protesting – and protests don’t often take kindly to being ignored. This issue is simply not going to go away until the government and police take it a step too far, or until they acquiesce to the people’s demands for the police to be held more accountable for the actions of individual officers.
All of this does of course beg the questions, why? And where does it go from here? Should we be worried about France turning into an illiberal democracy or undemocratic state, like Hungary, Poland, or many others we have seen turn since the Recession and Debt Crisis? Truth be told, it is unlikely that France will proceed down the same path that past authoritarians went down. The government is not making an effort to protect itself, and Macron has yet to make any attack on the electoral process – he has not claimed to be defending it, neither of these bills touch on it, and he has not made any allusion to the French democracy being flawed or in need of change. Attacking the democracy itself, through direct action or delegitimization, is a necessary part of the backslide of a state into authoritarianism. If the government or Macron begin to make moves that would disenfranchise others or question their democracy, then the alarms should begin to sound. Until then this, ironically enough, looks like an electoral strategy. The French presidential elections are set to take place next April, and it is looking as though the strongest opposition candidate will be Marine Le Pen, far-right leader of the Rassemblement National (National Rally) party. Marine Le Pen, as well as Macron, made it to the second round of the Presidential elections last time, and given polling data now she is favorite to once again make it to that second round. This may be an attempt by the centrist Macron to make himself more appealing to right-leaning voters, in preparation for an electoral battle with a far-right candidate. We’ll have to see if history will repeat itself in this strategy as well. For now, we can only hope that this is as far as Macron’s government goes.