Thousands of people in France’s capital and other cities have protested against a new bill by the government that would make it a crime to circulate an image of a police officer’s face.
Under the draft law, tabled in Parliament by President Emmanuel Macron’s governing La Republique En Marche party, sharing images of on-duty police “with the aim of harming their physical or psychological integrity” will be punishable with up to a year in prison and a maximum 45,000-euro ($53,360) fine.
Other proposed measures include allowing police to use camera-equipped drones and easier access to CCTV footage.
Opponents to the draft law say the measure would infringe journalists’ freedom to report, while supporters say police officers and their families need protection from harassment, both online and in person when off duty.
On the Trocadero Square in western Paris, rights activists, trade unionists and journalists on Saturday chanted “Everybody wants to film the police!” and “Freedom!”, as police wearing riot gear stood by.
In addition to representatives of the media, others included members of the “Yellow Vest” and “Extinction Rebellion” movements, along with individuals waving unions’ flags and those of the Communist and Green parties.
The bill passed its first reading on Friday and there will be a second reading on Tuesday.
Prime Minister Jean Castex said this would “remove any ambiguity on the intention to guarantee respect for public freedoms while better protecting those, police and gendarmes, who ensure the protection of the population”.
Journalist unions say it could give police a green light to prevent them from doing their work and potentially documenting abuses by security forces.
An amendment clarifies that press freedom should in no way be hindered by the proposed measures.
French media are also concerned about potential rights abuses via the use of drones to watch demonstrations and facial recognition programmes linked to surveillance cameras.
French police have been taken to task in recent years for alleged brutality meted out to protesters and criminal suspects, especially those from Black, Arab or other minorities.In the northern city of Lille, around 1,000 demonstrators turned out, one of whom carried an English-language sign that said “Orwell was right” in a reference to the dystopian novel, 1984.
Others marched in the Brittany city of Rennes and in Montpellier on the Mediterranean coast, where some chanted: “Put down your arms and we’ll put down our telephones.”
Thomas Hochmann, professor of public law at the University of Paris Nanterre, told Al Jazeera: “It constitutes a serious infringement of freedom of expression. There will be great reluctance [for the public and journalists] to disseminate images or even to film.”
In an editorial, Le Monde, meanwhile, said the bill risks “further poisoning” the relationship between citizens and police. L’Humanité said it was “authoritarian and freedom killing”.
The United Nations Human Rights Council has also made an extraordinary intervention to critique the “innumerable problems” of the bill and called for French politicians to not support it.
Claire Hedon, France’s human rights defender – an independent administrative authority but appointed by the president – said in a statement the legislation poses “considerable risks infringing several fundamental rights, in particular, the right to privacy and freedom of information”.