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France must respect and promote right to peaceful protest: UN experts

15 June 2023

GENEVA (15 June 2023) – UN experts* today expressed concern at the reported excessive use of force during protests in France earlier this year over pension reform and mega-basin projects.

“The lack of restraint in the use of force against members of civil society for demanding their rightful participation in decision-making processes concerning their future, access to natural resources, the protection of human rights, dignity and equality would not only be anti-democratic, but profoundly worrying for the protection of the rule of law,” the experts said.

They called on authorities to undertake a comprehensive review of their policing strategies and practices to enable protesters to voice their concerns and to facilitate the peaceful protest and participation in public affairs. “We stand ready to make the necessary recommendations in areas where shortcomings have been identified,” they said.

The experts reiterated** their call on the authorities to fulfil their international obligations to facilitate and protect peaceful protests and promote freedom of association by taking the necessary steps to investigate acts of violence during protests and bring perpetrators to justice.

Since the beginning of the year, thousands of people have mobilised in various cities of France to denounce the Government’s proposed pension reform, and water management policies in the face of the climate emergency.

The experts noted that protesters from all age groups and different social movements – including trade unionists and environmentalists – promoted and adopted peaceful methods, and that the demands of the organisers were clearly stated ahead of gatherings.

“The police used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse the crowds: ammunition that France is the only European country to use in public order operations,” the experts said.

The police crackdown reportedly left dozens of people injured, including protesters, journalists, and elected officials, as well as passers-by. Reportedly, the “Brav-M” motorised brigade in Paris threatened and hit demonstrators, and in Sainte-Soline police allegedly fired rubber bullets from moving quad bikes, while emergency services were reportedly prevented from intervening to rescue a seriously injured person. Across different cities, there were reports of several people being arbitrarily arrested.

“We know that some isolated acts of violence have damaged public property and injured members of the security forces,” the experts said, “however, the number of people injured and the severity of reported acts of violence is alarming.”

The experts received worrying information on the use of a rhetoric criminalising human rights defenders, including environmental activists, among government officials. They expressed concern about a growing trend of stigmatisation and criminalisation of individuals and civil society organisations raising awareness about the consequences of climate change, to justify the excessive, repeated, and intensified use of force against them.

“The right to peaceful assembly is a fundamental right that forms the very basis of participatory governance systems founded on democracy, human rights, the rule of law and pluralism,” they said.

“We remind France that any policing strategy must respect the principles of necessity and proportionality, with the sole aim of facilitating peaceful assemblies and protecting the fundamental rights of participants – including their right to life and to physical and psychological integrity,” concluded the experts.


** Experts have already expressed similar concerns to the French Government in 2019, during the “gilets jaunes” protests.

*The experts: Clément Nyaletsossi Voulé, Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, Special Rapporteur on the rights to water and sanitation; David R. Boyd, Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment; Michael Fakhri, Special Rapporteur on the right to food; Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the freedom of opinion and expression; and Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders under the Aarhus Convention.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Comprising the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, Special Procedures is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

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