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Hello Minister of Police ?

French so-called Global Security Law : Police blurred, citizens blinded

Par David Dufresne, 11 novembre 2020 | 533 Lectures

The man is on the ground, we now know that he repeats that he can no longer breathe, a group of policemen is holding him down. « I can’t breathe » again, a strangulation gesture… Cédric Chouviat’s legs convulsing, and from their car, witnesses film. The blows, the traffic jam, and the asphyxiation that comes, this January 3, 2020, at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.

Like Darnella Frazier, during George Floyd’s agony in Minneapolis, these videographers are changing the world, because they are afraid, because they (still) have the right to film, and because they are finding the courage to do so, because they are doing like everyone else now : they have drawn the weapon of the unarmed, their cell phone, like Juvenal in his Satires : Quis custodiet ipsos custodes ? « But who will guard these guards ? »Who will watch the watchers ?

As soon as they are broadcast, the images of Cédric Chouviat will thwart the fable of the « heart attack » sold over a weekend by the authorities and part of the press—what would have happened without the .mov, without Twitter ? What would we have known about the death of Cédric Chouviat ?

In an eloquent haste, with the so-called Global Security law proposal, the government is trying, ten months later, to at best de-realize the filmed police violence (« I thank the MPs for putting in place the blurring » of the forces of law and order, says the interior minister Gérald Darmanin) ; at worst, to send them back to the dungeons of the closed cases (« We want the agents to be no longer identifiable to the general public », Jean-Michel Fauvergue, the bearer of the said law proposal, during its examination in the law commission, last Thursday). In any case, to impose soft censorship on their dissemination—but censorship all the same.

Eloquent, the urgency to legislate speaks of the nervousness, even panic, of a police and political hierarchy in the face of an alleged « tyranny of stolen images (...) thrown on social networks » according to the former minister of the interior Christophe Castaner, on June 26, 2020, at the National Police Academy in Saint-Cyr-au-Mont-d’Or. Almost everywhere in democracies, the same automatisms are at work, the same basic movement : not tyranny, but the opposite, police control of... the police. On the other side of the Atlantic, a logic of « police accountability » (which, by its very nature, must be held accountable, and it is said that the scale of the BlackLivesMatter movement weighed on Biden’s election) ; and on our shores, a paragraph in 1789 :

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

« Art. 12 - The guarantee of the rights of man and citizen requires a public force ; this force is therefore instituted for the advantage of all and not for the personal benefit of those to whom it is entrusted. ... Society has the right to call for an account of the administration of every public agent. »

Everything is written there, in eight letters : public. Ultimately, what could distinguish the police from a militia is indeed this marble—to which the Republic keeps coming back—, it is indeed these eight letters : its public character, by and for the people, neither against nor without it. Put another way : the Republic, if it wishes to be perceived as a public thing, must imperatively be exemplary—that is to say, it must bend to control.

Clearly : without hatred, without fear, without hooding or blurring. If it refuses, it is because it might well have something to hide : police violence that, as the Tartuffe, we cannot endure to look on (and that we could no longer show, in its naked reality).

Now, through this bill, which some have been advocating for months, the police would like to be authorized to officially avoid public scrutiny, and, in effect, ratify a creeping anonymization, with agents who operate increasingly hooded, concealing their faces, hiding their license plates, not to mention their obligatory identification numbers (RIO), often invisible, always derisory (their size, tiny, and their series of numbers, impossible to memorize). There is a good chance that the Constitutional Council, if it had to be seized, would draw from its classics, foremost among which is the one of 1789.

The existence of the police, perhaps even what remains of its legitimacy, lies in its submission to a demand for publicity, under the gaze of each and every one of us. As such, the law on global security will undoubtedly run the risk of aggravating the population’s mistrust (monitored everywhere, by drones that will soon be over-authorized) towards the forces of law and order (blurred, by legal obligation). Vincent Couronne, associate researcher in law, writes : « All this controversy around the anonymization of law enforcement masks a deficiency of the State : its capacity to guarantee the security of its agents. Imposing anonymity on police officers is undoubtedly simpler, quicker and more lucrative from an electoral point of view than re-establishing the bond of trust between citizens and their police. »

Until now, law makers had hardly needed to be active. Everything was going well. The General Inspectorate of the National Police (IGPN) and its twin in the gendarmerie were entertaining the gallery and journalists, and impunity was being practiced cahin-caha away from view - and memories. A handful of convictions were exhibited to release some the pressure, making sure that the shield would still hold. For a long time, it was word against word ; one, police and official, of authority ; the other, citizen, unofficial—and suspicious. The first won, the second lost its steam, and the forensic experts often ended up applauding the first.

Except that everything has changed. Technology is triumphing where the law had failed (until now) to serve the pursuit of transparency and the assurance of equality of arms before the courts. Suddenly, the iPhone arrives, and its electronic eye widens the contours of the battlefield (for truth). Even François Molins, public prosecutor at the Cour de cassation, acknowledged this on November 5, 2020 : without the images « on social networks » of the Bergson high school student in Paris being beaten to the ground by a police officer in 2016, there would be no self-prosecution by the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

In the 2000s, a Canadian professor had proposed the term « sousveillance ». In this concept, Steve Mann laid the foundations for what is at stake in the GoPro-isation of the world : the recording of an activity from the point of view of a person involved in it—surfing or mounting barricades, the gesture is the same, it is the purpose of the filming that changes the wave. In the case of police sousveillance, we can designate the gesture as a form of reverse surveillance, of reverse panopticon—some speak of distributed control.

It is in this context that the so-called global security law proposal comes into play. You only need to have followed last week’s debates to be sure : Article 24 is above all a rallying call against social networks. Jean-Michel Fauvergue reassures : « Don’t worry, journalists will still be able to do their job. We only want to sanction malevolent attitudes. » Without saying more, neither on the exact content of the alleged « malevolence », nor on who would determine (and when) the « attitudes », and without mentioning that the Penal Code already provides for all possible and legitimate sanctions in case of physical or psychological threats : insults, blows, death threats, provocation to commit a crime, defamation and cyber-harassment included.

Making an admission, the deputy added : « There is a difference between TV [reports] » and the loops of social networks. Understand that there could always be accommodations with professionals in the profession (« worthy of the name », according to LREM (governmental party) MP Stéphane Mazars, who targets Internet « activists »). And like a reversal of Juvénal, Alice Thourot, another member of Parliament who initiated the law, will see his formula « protect those who protect us » quoted several times during the debates, like so many incantations.

A striking turnaround that calls for another : if « justice is at the service of the police, historically and institutionally » (Michel Foucault), we can say that here, with the law on global security, it is the police who are at the service of the police, politically and legislatively. Jean-Michel Fauvergue directed the police special forces (RAID) from 2013 to 2017. Not long ago, he called for « forgetting the Malik Oussekine case ». The global security law would therefore be a total offer : it would curb the documentation of the present, prohibit that of the future, and make us forget the past. Fortunately, the main journalists associations have foiled the maneuver : they will not serve as turkeys for the bad farce.

The camerization of the world

ase study of a countrywide sousveillance school : the movement of yellow vests and its accumulation of corporal punishment. In the National Assembly, a law committee is constantly returning to this issue these days. This « Law and Order » commission is also chaired by the same Jean-Michel Fauvergue, who defends his « global security » bill, as if to say that the stakes are set and the debates are over.

Allo Place Beauvau, the platform that documents police violence © david dufresne
Twenty-seven dazed, five hands torn off, more than a hundred LBD shots in the head, all illegal, and the death of Zyneb Redouane, hit by a tear gas grenade, in Marseille, on December 1, 2018. In a few weeks, the profusion of video testimonies had made the police brutality totally visible.

When Jérôme Rodrigues is on his live Facebook page, Place de la Bastille, on January 26, 2019, it is not only him who receives a blast ball (LBD projectile in the French jargon) in his right eye, it is all his friends who are affected, all these strangers who will share, like, dislike, comment, spread the eye punched : an army of shadows that suddenly makes injustice public. The Fauvergue law would propose the global blurring of each of these dramas. A double legal punishment, in short.

To the direct shots of tear gas, to the LBDs that explode lives, the crowd (most of them demonstrating for the first time, and ignorant of all this violence until then) will understand what is going on. Targeted, the crowd makes itself visible, and even hyper-visible, it shows itself, selfies itself, films itself. The procession of broken faces will be the terrible blood price of a terrible repression. And little by little, a part of the country discovers what the popular suburbs have been experiencing for 30 or 40 years : the legal violence of the police (a concept that can be debated) has largely been erased in favor of the illegitimate (which must be fought), to the point of seeing its agents enjoy their own power and their own spectacle (« Voilà une classe qui se tient sage »—« Here is a class that stands upright », jokes a policeman—who films and arrests them simultaneously—to 151 high school students in Mantes-la-Jolie, kneeling and shackled, on December 6, 2018, as an address to the entire country).

Documented and attested, the videos, sometimes just fragments, constitute a considerable narrative issue for the police, for the demonstrators, as well as for those who report on them : the videographers and photographers moving over the course of the weeks, themselves becoming targets of the forces of law and order, with arrests, reformatting of memory cards, targeted telephones, bludgeoned lenses, anti-« militant journalists » campaigns.

The camerization of the world is a « revolution, » an « essential tool for transparency, » a « radical change » even in the « working methods of UN rapporteurs, » according to Michel Forst, UN special rapporteur who testifies in “Un pays qui se tient sage” (documentary film by this author). The profusion of images will be their weight. Their stacking, their meaning. Their globality, their value. Their repetition, the evidence of mechanical, repeated, systemic police violence.

It is indeed this mad deluge that the law is trying to blur out. Let the battlefield once again become a green meadow, through an armada of co-produced TV reports, or at least supervised by police authorities. And that to the sound of Emmanuel Macron’s prayer (« Don’t talk about repression or police violence, these words are unacceptable in a state governed by the rule of law, » Gréoux-Les-Bains, March 8, 2019), the National Assembly is going to add censorship of the image.

Gérald Darmanin makes no secret of the fact : the so-called global security law is very much his own, it is even a « promise » he made to the police unions (by the way, a cheap gift that allows to calm down, without spending a lot of money, an institution that is freewheeling and at the end of its rope). We have even known since Tuesday, November 10 that this article 24 is a little more than that, it was Alice Thourot, the co-rapporteur who let the cat out of the bag : this provision « is only the legislative translation of a commitment made by the President of the Republic before the police unions in October, when he received them at the Elysée Palace. »

A poisoned gift, too : when the minister rationalizes the spirit of the law, he relies on the terrible drama of Magnanville (a police couple murdered in their home, in front of their child, in 2016), while acknowledging that he does not know « whether or not the images on social networks brought about this attack ». To date, no scientific study, no IGPN audit, no precise figures have validated these claims about possible attacks on police officers that may have originated from the distribution of images on social networks. No one disputes that such threats may exist, but no one knows anything about their volume. We legislate in the dark.

Since the Sarkozy years, everything indicates that the police are finally paying for their conversion to the repressive system, now appearing only as a machine of confrontation, violence and... a subject for filming. On the one hand, its repertoire of actions is toughening ; on the other hand, speech is freeing itself, and a demand for debate has been established. The point here is to underline what is at stake now : the re-establishment of an egalitarian match, in terms of opinions, where the transparency of police practices leads everyone to be more... watchful.

And it is indeed this loss of monopoly over narrative that makes the institution so nervous, and so coarse in its denial. This sudden competition around the « battle of the image we are losing » (Jean-Michel Fauvergue, November 5, 2020, in the Law Commission) is what leads to the most dreaded questioning for the institution : that of the legitimacy of the force it claims to have.

In its omnipotence, and its foundations, the police force is affected. Hence the agitation of the authorities to legislate right now. If we consider that there are two thermometers for measuring police violence, one that would be the IGPN, which does not work, and a second, social networks, which one wishes to break—then the terrible evidence emerges : this desire to reinforce police impunity is nothing more than an authoritarian demand.