This week, a French court struck down the government’s blanket ban on pro-Palestine rallies. But now, authorities are taking things further, citing “anti-terrorism” measures to break up left-wing groups and even expel activists from France.

French interior minister Gerald Darmanin stands next to French president Emmanuel Macron in Arras, France on October 13, 2023. (Ludovic Marin / AFP via Getty Images)

It’s a partial victory for France’s Palestine solidarity movement. On Wednesday, the State Council — France’s highest administrative court — rejected Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin’s blanket ban on rallies against Israel’s continuous bombing and threatened ground invasion of Gaza, in retaliation to Hamas’s October 7 attacks on southern Israel. Yet the principle of freedom of protest can hardly be considered secure.

Darmanin’s circular to territorial police prefects on October 12 decreed that all such demonstrations should be forbidden, citing the supposed risks to public order. But, in an apparent defeat for the interior minister, the State Council stipulated that the decision to ban a protest could only be made on a case-by-case basis — an application of France’s habitual practice of subjecting preannounced protests to authorization by prefectures.

“The State Council has played its role as a watchdog,” says Vincent Brengarth, attorney of the Comité Action Palestine, which brought the case before the State Council. He says that he’s very “relieved” by this “symbolic victory” in favor of freedom of expression and the right to protest. “This will make it easier to push back against a series of decisions and talking points that have been extremely dangerous for people looking to hold protests . . . there can be no systematic bans on protests in France.”

The last two weeks have seen the banning of dozens of marches and rallies in support of the Palestinians and calling for a ceasefire. People have still taken to the streets in towns and cities across France — but the unauthorized nature of the protests has subjected them to more aggressive policing and scores of arrests. Countless others have surely been deterred by the promised repercussions, which run from financial penalties to threats to foreign protesters’ residency status. At the October 14 rally in Paris alone, 19 people were detained and 752 received official warnings. Police handed out €135 fines to those cautioned.

“They tried to get the State Council to recognize the possibility that a gathering of people, by nature of its objectives, could threaten public order” Brengarth told Jacobin. He pointed to the dangerous precedent that could have been set in criminalizing Palestine solidarity, had interior minister Darmanin gotten his way.

Banned Protests

While Wednesday’s ruling reined in Emmanuel Macron’s hard-line minister, it may mark little more than a hiccup in the broader campaign to repress criticism of Israel’s punitive war. “It doesn’t change much except to show the hypocrisy of the State Council,” says Sonia Fayman of the anti-Zionist Jewish secular group, French Jewish Union for Peace (UJFP). Several of UJFP’s own members have been arrested in peace rallies over the last ten days. “Leaving it to a case-by-case approach leaves prefects and mayors free rein to issue bans as they wish. This still gives them the green light.”

This is, fundamentally, a decision that preserves the legal status quo. Devolving decision-making power local-level to administrators does not mean that future protests will necessarily receive authorization. “[The ruling] should bring prefects around to a more cautious stance relative to the minister’s orders,” Brengarth hopes. But these officials are subordinates in a hierarchy in which the implicit pressure from on high wants no quarter for Palestine solidarity or criticism of France’s position in the ongoing crisis. Following the State Council’s decision, a lower administrative tribunal suspended the Paris prefecture’s ban on Thursday’s demonstration in the capital’s Place de la République — that is, while it was already underway.

There’s little chance that this ruling marks a major shift in the climate in France, one that Brengarth says is characterized by “an extremely worrying restriction of civil liberties, and in particular the right to protest.” None of France’s social movements are immune to this underlying tendency. But the repression of Palestine solidarity is inflected by a particular severity shown by the current government, which fears any issue liable to mobilize French Muslims and people of color — or, in the euphemistic words of some of the protest bans, the “importation of a foreign conflict.”

Expelling Dissidents

Earlier this week, to public outcry, the seventy-two-year-old Gazan activist Mariam Abudaqa had her visa revoked and was ordered to leave France. Issued a visa on August 7 that was supposed to last until November 24, Abudaqa, a widely respected militant for women’s rights and member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), has been in France for a speaking tour on the rights of women and Palestinians. She had already visited Paris, Lyon, Saint-Etienne, Metz, Martigues, and Marseille, where she received an order on October 16 for her deportation “with absolute urgency.” Faced with the delay necessary for organizing her departure, she was put on house arrest from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. in a hotel in the center of Marseille.

As one of the motives, the order detailed Abudaqa’s membership of the PFLP, termed an “organization on the European Union’s list of organizations subject to restrictive measures in the fight against terrorism.” It also cited Abudaqa’s “well publicized participation” at events and protests as being of such “a nature that will stoke tensions, hatred and violence between communities and cause serious problems for public order” given the present conflict.

The deportation order also throws in the “Hamas attack on Israel,” “the sizeable death toll and the hostages exposed to a risk of execution,” and “ongoing conflict in the near east.” It similarly mentions Abudaqa’s support of Lebanese Communist militant George Abdallah, who is Europe’s longest-held prisoner, after being handed a life sentence for the 1982 assassination of a US military attaché and an Israeli diplomat.

But this is not the end of the “context” that supposedly weighs against this septuagenarian’s in France. A still more expansive list of associations cites the October 13 murder of teacher Dominique Bernard — by a man under investigation by antiterrorist intelligence services — at Gambetta-Carnot high school in Arras and, more broadly, “the growing terrorist threat in France.”

Yet there has also been pushback from the courts against government moves that so brazenly trample on basic human rights. On Friday, a judge suspended Abudaqa’s expulsion, ruling that “the interior minister has seriously, and in a manifestly illegal way, infringed on the freedom of expression and movement.”

For Véronique Hollebecque, vice president of Association France Palestine Solidarité, the Abudaqa affair boils down to the government trying to silence “a 72-year-old woman who has come to speak about Gaza and the activist work she does for women there. Her role in the Palestinian resistance is what’s being stressed — even if that’s not the reason she came to France — and her participation in the PFLP, even if, again, that’s not what she was here to talk about.”

“It’s absolutely unbelievable, I have no other words,” Hollebecque told Jacobin. “They’re trying to give people one image of Palestinians as radical Islamists and terrorists.”

Darmanin’s Ambitions

Beyond protest bans, Darmanin also hopes to enlist the justice system for his own political ends. On October 15, the interior minister announced that he was submitting to prosecutors eleven complaints for “apologias for terrorism,” a possible prelude to court-ordered dissolution of groups like Palestine Vaincra and the anticolonialists of Les indigènes de la République — long a controversial organization but one that has no violent record.

He likewise appealed to prosecutors to file charges against Danièle Obono, a France Insoumise MP in northeastern Paris who referred to Hamas as a “resistance movement” during an October 17 radio interview. Early in the morning on October 20, two members of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) trade union, including a regional-level secretary, were arrested at their homes for having distributed leaflets similarly alleged to have made excuses for terrorism.

Besides Le Monde and Mediapart, French media have largely turned a blind eye to the increasingly aggressive maneuvers coming from the interior minister. Darmanin this week made another strange conflation when speaking to Jewish community leaders in Créteil, claiming that “hatred of Jews and hatred of cops are linked,” before qualifying “not by conviction but by electoral calculation.” In all probability, this was a jibe aimed at France Insoumise and its alleged “communalist” appeal to France’s Muslims. Beyond their apparent revisionism, his comments disingenuously present the current conflict along the lines demanded by his own political project: painting himself as an avatar state authority, versus creeping disorder.

In reality, it is Darmanin himself who is making electoral calculations over the conflict in Israel-Palestine, as he jockeys to become France’s possible next prime minister.

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