Massive protests triggered by the proposed ban on publishing French police photographs

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A proposed law in France, which would ban journalists from posting photographs or images of police officers, sparked mass protests across the country over the weekend.

Tens of thousands of citizens have taken to the streets of Paris and other major French cities to protest police brutality, arguing that the security bill is designed to ensure impunity for violent police officers. The outcry was also fueled by recent images of French police beating and gassing a black citizen and the brutal police evacuation of a migrant camp in a Paris square last week. Clashes between police and protesters across the country resulted in 81 arrests and 98 police officers injured, according to Euronews.

The bill, supported by President Emmanuel Macron, would criminalize the publication of images of police officers with the intention of harming their “physical or psychological integrity”. Violators would face a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a fine of € 45,000 (~ $ 54,000) under section 24 of the bill.

But following public outcry, the French government yesterday issued a conciliatory statement, promising to propose a “complete new rewrite” of the controversial security bill.

Installation view of Paolo Cirio’s canceled project Capture (courtesy of the artist)

The disputed bill follows a lesser-known incident in which the French Minister of the Interior, Gerald Darmanin, threatened an artist with legal measures on Twitter for exposing the identity of police officers in an artistic project.

“The men and women who risk their lives to protect us have been pilloried,” the minister wrote in a statement. Tweeter (translated from French), speaking directly to the Italian hacker-artist Paolo Cirio. Darmanin demanded “the cancellation of the” exhibition “and the removal of the photos from its website” and threatened that failure to comply with this obligation would “bring the matter to the appropriate courts”.

In October, Cirio was due to unveil a full-scale installation titled Capture as part of the collective exhibition Panorama 22 at Fresnoy (National Studio of Contemporary Arts) in the city of Tourcoing. The wall installation was to present 150 profiles of French police officers. But on October 2, a day after Darmanin’s tweet condemning the work, the gallery canceled Cirio’s participation in the exhibition and covered up his installation.

Cirio, who in the past hacked Google and the Cayman Islands government registry, collected 1,000 public photos of police officers taken during protests in France and processed them with facial recognition software to document more than 4 000 faces of officers who can now be identified by name. The artist says his project mimics tools used by US firm Clearview AI, which provides facial profiling services to law enforcement around the world using publicly available images online.

At Twitter, the French police union congratulated the minister for his intervention in the exhibition, thanking him for his “firmness in the defense of the police officers and their families”. The statement was followed by the hashtag #BlueLivesMatter in English.

The director of Fresnoy, the filmmaker Alain Fleischer, said in a declaration that the gallery was “deeply shocked” by Cirio’s methods, adding that “the artist violated the terms on which he agreed not to do anything of the sort”.

In an email to Hyperallergic, Cirio dismissed Fleischer’s claims, saying Le Fresnoy “was well aware of all aspects of the project.”

Fresnoy staff cover Cirio’s installation before an exhibition opens in October (courtesy Paolo Cirio)

In September, Cirio posted portraits of French police officers on the streets of Paris and produced a video about the dangers of facial recognition tools to civil liberties when in the hands of law enforcement.

In addition, the artist has launched an online petition calling on the European Union to permanently ban the use of facial recognition for the identification and profiling of activists and civilians. The petition has been signed by nearly 47,000 people to date.

“Facial recognition is a particularly invasive technology,” the petition reads. “It’s not just about monitoring activists, suspects and minorities, but it’s an invasion of everyone’s privacy.”

Cirio publishes portraits of French police officers in the streets of Paris in September 2020
A portrait of a French policeman taken by Cirio during a demonstration

On October 6, Cirion sent an open letter to the French Minister of Culture, Roselyne Bachelot, in which he described Darmanin’s threats against her as “pure act of censorship imposed directly by the French government”.

“This censorship jeopardizes the very principles of democracy in which art as free expression must exist to debate, comment on and condemn governments and their institutions, including uncivil behavior by the police,” added the artist.

Other artists participating in the exhibition and students from Le Fresnoy sided with Cirio in another open letter denouncing the minister’s “censorship and methods of intimidation”.

“We are rising against the interference of Mr. Darmanin, who exerts unacceptable and totally inappropriate pressure on a cultural institution through social networks (Twitter),” says the open letter, signed by 56 artists and students. . “Such methods worry and highlight the authoritarian inclination of a member of the government who refuses any public debate when a subject disturbs him, in this case the dissemination of facial recognition.”

Demonstration in Paris on November 28, 2020 against a security bill that would prohibit filming or photographing police officers (Jeanne Menjoulet / Flickr)
Protesters in Paris carrying a sign reading “Democracy bludgeon” on November 28, 2020 (Jeanne Menjoulet / Flickr)

If passed, the proposed new law would immediately expose Cirio to prosecution, especially after drawing the ire of a cabinet member and law enforcement officials.

“This bill makes me particularly vulnerable legally and the violent threats I have received might be a bit too personal and close to this escalation of tension,” the artist told Hyperallergic.

When asked if his draft was a possible catalyst for the proposed law, Cirio said: “I don’t want to think that this draft made the Article 24 proposal more urgent for the French authorities, but my job Surely made them very nervous and they thought about it when drafting this new law.

Cirio has temporarily put his project on hold, but has said he could pursue it in other countries. “I will always have to be careful,” he said.

“I didn’t do this art to strictly identify the police; it’s more about provoking, reflecting, revealing and simulating realities, ”explained Cirio. “Artistic provocations are successful when they generate public shock, critical reactions and strong responses to raise awareness and warn of danger. “

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