The International Human Rights Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
France is a State Party to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 21 governs the right of peaceful assembly, providing that:
The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
France is also a State Party to the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, which allows individuals to petition the Human Rights Committee if they believe the State has violated their human rights as protected under the Covenant.
At regional level, France is a State Party to the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. Article 11 governs freedom of assembly and association:
1. Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
2. No restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of these rights other than such as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. This Article shall not prevent the imposition of lawful restrictions on the exercise of these rights by members of the armed forces, of the police or of the administration of the State.
The Domestic Legal Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
There is no explicit protection of the right of peaceful assembly in the French Constitution. The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, however, protects the right of resistance to oppression and to freedom of expression.
Under French law, a notification of an assembly must be made to the local town hall or city police station in the case of Paris, at least 48 hours in advance. The organisers are required to give their names, addresses, the aim of the assembly, the date, the place, et and the route of any demonstration. The measures are set out in the Decree-Law of 23 October 1935 governing measures to strengthen the maintence of public order.
In the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, a state of emergency was imposed, which included a temporary ban on demonstrations. When the government sought to extend the initial three-month state of emergency, thousands of protestors took to the streets in Paris in March 2016 in protest.
Part of a new law on the maintenance of public order during demonstrations (No. 2019-780 DC), adopted on 13 March 2019, was deemed unconstitutional by the French Supreme Court in a judgment in April 2019. The provision would have inserted an Article L. 211-4-1 in the Internal Security Code allowing the authorities, in certain circumstances, to prohibit participation in a demonstration on the public highway. The broad preventive nature of the prohibition would, the Court concluded, have been disproportionate.
On 9 July 2020, the Constitutional Court held that Parliament had not duly authorised the Executive (namely, the Prime Minister) to replace a notification regime by an authorisation regime on the sole ground of the COVID-19 pandemic. The decision was therefore struck down.
The Legal Framework on Use of Force During Assemblies
The Use of Force
International Legal Rules
Under international law, the duty on the State and its law enforcement agencies is to facilitate the enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly. According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials:
In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.
All force used by police and other law enforcement agencies must be necessary for a legitimate law enforcement purpose and proportionate to that purpose.
Acording to the 2013 Internal Security Code, force must be used only when necessary and in a manner that is proportionate to the serious of the threat.
The Use of Firearms
International Legal Rules
According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles, in the dispersal of violent assemblies, a law enforcement official may only use a firearm against a specific individual where this is necessary to confront an imminent threat of death or serious injury or a grave and proximate threat to life.
The provisions of the 2013 Internal Security Code were amended in 2017. Article L. 435-1 of the Code now allows police officers and gendarmes may use their firearms "in case of absolute necessity and in a strictly proportionate manner" including when, after two warnings have been given, "they can not otherwise defend the places they occupy or the persons entrusted to them" or they cannot otherwise effect the arrest "of persons who seek to evade custody or investigation and who are likely to perpetrate in their flight, attacks on lives or physical integrity".
This is more permissive than international law allows.
State Compliance with its Legal Obligations
Views and Concluding Observations of United Nations Treaty Bodies
In its 2015 Concluding Observations on France, the Human Rights Committee did not address the right of peaceful assembly.
Les Authentiks and Supras Auteuil 91 v. France (2016)
This case concerned the dissolution of two Paris-Saint-Germain supporters’ associations, following fights in which some of their members were involved in in 2010, leading to the death of one supporter. The European Court of Human Rights found that there had been no violation of the right of freedom of assembly and association.
Barraco v. France (2009)
The applicant was a lorry driver. In 2002, 17 motorists, including the applicant, took part in a traffic-slowing operation on a motorway, which involved driving along a predetermined route in a convoy, at slow speed, occupying several lanes, to slow down the traffic on the motorway. When three drivers at the front of the convoy, one of whom was the applicant, stopped their vehicles, completely blocking the road for other users, the police arrested them. The drivers concerned were summoned to appear in court for having obstructed the public highway by placing or attempting to place on it an object that obstructed vehicular traffic, or using or attempting to use any means to obstruct it – in the instant case by stopping their vehicles several times. The court acquitted the accused, but the public prosecutor appealed and the Court of Appeal set aside that judgment, found them guilty as charged and sentenced them each to a suspended term of three months’ imprisonment together with a €1,500 fine. The Court of Cassation dismissed an appeal on points of law lodged by the applicant.
The applicant’s conviction was held to have amounted to interference by the public authorities with his right to freedom of peaceful assembly, which included the freedom to demonstrate. The interference had been “prescribed by law” and had pursued the legitimate aims of preventing disorder and protecting the rights and freedoms of others. As to whether it had been necessary in a democratic society, it was to be noted that no formal prior notice of the demonstration had been given as required by the relevant domestic law. However, the authorities had been aware of it and had also had the opportunity to take measures for the protection of safety and public order, for example by organising police protection and a police escort. So even if the demonstration had not been tacitly tolerated, at least it had not been prohibited. Moreover, the applicant had not been convicted of taking part in the demonstration as such, but for his particular conduct during the demonstration, namely, blocking a motorway and thereby causing more of an obstruction than would normally be caused by exercising one’s right to freedom of peaceful assembly. It was indeed clear from the case file that while the demonstration was in progress, from 6 am to 11 am, the traffic had been held up, but also that several total stoppages had been caused by drivers at the head of the convoy, including the applicant, stopping their vehicles. This complete blockage of the traffic had clearly gone beyond the mere inconvenience caused by any demonstration on the public highway. The police, whose task had been to protect safety and public order, had arrested the three demonstrators only in order to unblock the traffic, after the drivers had been warned several times not to stop their vehicles on the motorway and informed of the penalties they could incur. In that context and for several hours, the applicant had been able to exercise his right to freedom of peaceful assembly and the authorities had displayed the tolerance that should be shown towards such gatherings. The applicant’s conviction and sentence had therefore not been disproportionate to the aims pursued.
Views of Civil Society
In March 2021, CIVICUS reported that French authorities have cracked down on civil society organisations (CSOs) accused of opposing the ‘Republican order’ and being ‘radical Islamists’. CSOs have also been under attack from extreme right and mainstream political forces, who have expressed stigmatising views towards Muslims and Muslim organisations. Following this, the French government led several initiatives which threatened civic space and the rule of law in France, which includes the draft Anti-Separatism law and the draft bill on Global Security. Objectors to the draft law on Global Security have maintained ongoing protests . The most controversial protest occurred in Paris, where organisers noted that police officers blocked access to the protest, refused to reveal their identification numbers and assau
According to Freedom House's 2019 report on France:
Freedom of assembly is normally respected. However, rights organizations expressed concern that an anti-terrorism law passed in 2017 limits the right to demonstrate.
In November 2018, the yellow vest protests against anticipated fuel tax increases broke out across the country. The protests grew into a mass movement that reflected deep-seated discontent with French political elites among working- and middle-class people. Some of the protests devolved into riots, with demonstrators blocking roads and damaging property, including the interior of the Arc de Triomphe. However, security forces responded to the demonstrations in a manner that Amnesty International described as “extremely heavy-handed,” injuring hundreds with tear gas, rubber bullets, and sting-ball grenades. Ten people died during the protests, which continued through the end of the year, often from car accidents at roadblocks.