(May 11, 2021) On April 15, 2021, the French Parliament adopted a bill on domestic security entitled “Bill for Overall Security Which Preserves Freedoms.” This bill, which is currently under review by the Constitutional Council before President Emmanuel Macron can sign it into law, aims to change the legislative framework concerning video surveillance, police body cameras, and the use of drones by law enforcement, as well as broaden the authority of municipal police forces and better regulate private security firms. Additionally, the bill contains several measures aimed at protecting police officers and provides for the creation of a municipal police force for Paris, the only large city in France that does not have one.
Provisions Regarding Municipal Police Forces
The main law enforcement bodies in France are the National Gendarmerie and the National Police, both of which are under the authority of the central government. In addition, many cities and towns have a municipal police force under the mayor’s authority to help fulfill certain law enforcement functions. Under current law, municipal police officers do not have the authority to conduct investigations, but they may intervene in situations where a criminal offense is committed in flagrante delicto (en flagrant délit). The bill adopted on April 15 would, as an experiment over the course of five years, give some municipal police forces expanded powers. These would include the authority to draw up formal reports on certain types of offenses, such as illegal street vending, driving without a license or without insurance, or using illegal drugs, as well as the authority to immobilize vehicles and seize evidence. Municipal police forces would need to be volunteered for the experimental program by their city or town, and would need to have at least 15 officers to qualify.
In addition to this experimental program, the bill would make it easier for several towns to pool their resources into a shared municipal police force, if they so choose. Finally, the bill would create a legal framework for the city of Paris to have its own municipal police by 2026.
Private Security Firms
Articles 7 to 19 of the bill aim to improve the regulation of private security firms, which are seen by the bill’s authors as “an essential link in the security continuum.” The bill would allow local prefects to hire private security agents to help secure public spaces and events against possible terrorist attacks. However, the bill would also reinforce the authority of the Conseil national des activités privées de sécurité (CNAPS) (National Council of Private Security Activities), the government agency in charge of licensing and supervising the private security sector, and provide for stricter licensing requirements for private security agents. Chain subcontracting (where a firm will subcontract to another firm, that in turn subcontracts to yet another firm, and so on) would be strictly limited under the bill.
Video Surveillance, Body Cameras, and Drones
Article 40 of the bill would allow municipal police officers to have access to images from public video surveillance cameras located near shops and businesses. The bill would also make it possible for law enforcement agencies to enter into agreements with the owners or property management of certain apartment buildings to get real-time access to footage from cameras installed in the common areas of these buildings. Additionally, certain agents of the Paris metro system and of the French train network would be given access to street-level video surveillance cameras installed near metro and train stations to increase security within those stations.
The bill also addresses body cameras worn by gendarmes and police officers. Body cams are to come into general use by July 2021, and the bill would allow body cam footage to be transmitted live to the command post of the officer wearing it in situations where his or her security is at risk, as well as during the execution of certain police operations. The original version of the bill, which was submitted to the National Assembly on October 20, 2020, would also have allowed law enforcement agencies to release body cam footage to the public. This measure, which was actively supported by French Minister of the Interior Gérald Darmanin, whose ministry is in charge of law enforcement in France, was meant to give law enforcement agencies the ability to provide the media with their own footage of protests or altercations between the police and citizens. However, the Senate amended the bill to remove this measure under the rationale that it would lead to a “war of images” that could undermine relations between the population and the police.
Article 22 of the bill would create a legal framework for the use of drone cameras by law enforcement. Under this framework, local prefects would be able to authorize law enforcement to use drones for surveillance over high-crime areas, as well as to assist police operations. Prosecutors and investigative judges would also be able to authorize the use of drones to gather evidence in criminal investigations. However, the Senate added certain guardrails to the bill, mainly by confirming the prohibition on the use of automatic facial recognition and on the cross-referencing of drone footage with other government databases. The Senate amendments also require the Ministry of the Interior to draft a “doctrine on the use of drones” with input from the Commission nationale de l’informatique et des libertés (CNIL) (National Commission on Information Technology and Freedoms), an independent agency that is France’s main watchdog for questions of privacy.
Protecting Law Enforcement Officers
The Bill for Overall Security also contains provisions to better protect the safety of law enforcement officers. It would expand the offense of ambushing a law enforcement officer, which is defined in Article 222-15-1 of the Penal Code, to encompass attacks against off-duty officers and their families. Additionally, the sale, purchase, storage, and use of fireworks mortars by anyone other than professional pyrotechnicians would be illegal, as these devices have increasingly been used as weapons in attacks against law enforcement officers over the last few years. Article 23 of the bill also provides that any inmate serving a sentence for a serious offense committed against an elected official, a judge or prosecutor, a law enforcement officer, or a firefighter would no longer be eligible for sentence reductions credits, except as a tool for penitentiary administrations to incentivize good behavior.
Police officers have been allowed to wear their service weapons while off duty since 2016, following the murder of a police officer and his partner at their home. The new bill would extend this right by forbidding businesses that are open to the public, such as shops, restaurants or bars, from barring off-duty law enforcement officers because they are carrying a weapon.
Finally, article 24 of the bill would make it a criminal offense, punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to 75,000 euros (approximately US$90,900), to provoke a gendarme or police officer to identify himself or herself during the course of a law enforcement operation “with the evident goal of causing harm to his/her physical or psychological integrity.” The same punishment would apply to the act of provoking close family members of gendarmes or police officers to identify themselves for the same nefarious purpose. Creating or maintaining a database of personal information regarding law enforcement officers or other public servants for purposes outside those allowed by the European General Data Protection Regulation or by French privacy legislation would be punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to 300,000 euros (approximately US$363,700).
This final drafting of article 24 of the Bill for Overall Security departs sharply from the original drafting, which was extremely controversial. Indeed, the original version of article 24 would have punished by up to one year of prison time and a fine of up to 45,000 euros (approximately US$54,500) the act of disseminating the image of the face or any other identifying element of a gendarme or police officer acting in a law enforcement operation “with the goal of causing harm to his/her physical or psychological integrity.” This original version was strongly criticized, including by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the European Council’s Commissioner for Human Rights, as violating freedom of the press. Indeed, critics feared that the wording of article 24 would make it illegal to show almost any footage of police violence. In response to these criticisms and protests against article 24, the Senate amended the bill to its current wording.
Constitutional Council Review
On April 22, Prime Minister Jean Castex asked the Constitutional Council to review article 24 of the bill. Castex supports the bill, but promised in November 2020 to have the constitutionality of article 24 reviewed as a gesture to assuage public opposition to it. Previously, a group of over 90 members of Parliament, all opposed to the bill, had appealed to the Constitutional Council on April 20. In addition to opposing article 24, which they claim is overly vague and could still be used to silence criticism of police violence, the bill’s opponents contest much of the rest of the bill for violating public liberties and fostering a regime of mass surveillance.
The Constitutional Council is a specialized court whose principal role is to judge whether bills or laws are consistent with the French Constitution. When it is called upon to judge the constitutionality of a bill prior to enactment, the council is required to rule within one month. It is therefore expected to render its decision regarding the Bill for Overall Security by May 20, 2021.