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France Withdraws Controversial Police Bill After Protests

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A controversial bill in France that would have restricted publication of photos and videos of police in action will not be law. The French government withdrew it this week after public outrage over video of officers beating a Black man. Here's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley on the debate in France over law, order and freedom.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: For the last five years, the French police have been overworked and under stress. There were the terrorist attacks in 2015. And in 2018, protesters wearing yellow vests took to the streets to denounce income inequality. In between have been endless strikes and demonstrations that often end in violent clashes with young anarchists.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS BREAKING)

BEARDSLEY: Police have been injured and targeted. In 2016, a police couple was killed in front of their child by a terrorist who broke into their home. So President Emmanuel Macron tried to push through a bill to criminalize the publication of certain images of on-duty officers. Mathieu Zagrodzki, a law enforcement researcher, explains.

MATHIEU ZAGRODZKI: That's been a demand for quite a while from rank and file and police unions because of fears regarding their privacy and regarding possible physical threats or even attacks.

BEARDSLEY: Article 24, as the legislation was known, was part of a larger security bill. At first, human rights groups and the news media spoke out against it. The EU also warned France that journalists must be able to work freely. Slim Ben Achour is a civil rights lawyer.

SLIM BEN ACHOUR: It's impossible to pretend that you're a strong democracy if your press is afraid of filming and then showing the images.

BEARDSLEY: Images like a video that surfaced last week showing three police officers beating a Black man, a professional music producer, who never raised a hand against them.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

BEARDSLEY: Amidst a national outcry over the video, tens of thousands of people took to the streets across the country. 25-year-old student Charles Dubois protested in Paris.

CHARLES DUBOIS: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: We're here to protect one of our cherished liberties, he says, freedom of information. The right to stay informed is as important as free speech and the right to protest. The face of Article 24 has been the hardline, young interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, who recently scoffed at the term police violence, saying any time police use force, it's legitimate. But Macron called the videotaped beating a national disgrace. On Monday, he ordered his interior minister to withdraw the controversial measure. This all comes at a sensitive time for police-community relations, says law enforcement expert Zagrodzki.

ZAGRODZKI: The George Floyd case had huge repercussions in France because there were also demonstrations here. And also, we should not forget that we had for over a year the yellow vest protests.

BEARDSLEY: Yellow vest protesters say they, too, were sometimes treated brutally by the police. That's left anger and resentment within the movement of mainly working-class whites from the French heartland. Political analyst Christophe Barbier says the interior minister tried to push Macron further to the right, but he made a big mistake.

CHRISTOPHE BARBIER: Because he thought the people will be with him and the policemen against the newspaper and the players on the Internet. And it was not the truth.

BEARDSLEY: The truth, says Barbier, is that the French want security for their policemen and liberty for citizens. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.