France’s top court has thrown out a ban on the ecological group Earth Uprisings. The interior minister labeled the group “terroristic” for its attacks on property — but its actions are a response to the government’s own criminal inaction on the climate crisis.

A Paris councilmember speaks to police after they raid a farm where Les Soulèvements de la Terre, or “Earth Uprisings,” was active, October 22, 2023. (Alain Pitton / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

This summer, French environmentalist collective Earth Uprisings looked set to be banned — but it has now survived the attack by President Emmanuel Macron’s government. On November 9, France’s highest administrative court threw out an official decree to outlaw the movement, which has led campaigns against large infrastructure and land-development projects and boasts over a hundred thousand affiliates and members.

“The highly original movement that is Earth Uprisings has been recognized as having the right to continue its activities,” says Antoine Lyon-Caen, an attorney representing the collective, which has garnered the support of leading writers and activists from France and abroad. Laura Monnier, a legal expert at Greenpeace France, says she’s “relieved” by this outcome to a legal battle that has captured the attention of France’s broader web of NGOs. She warns, however, that civil society needs to stay “vigilant” of the wider threats to freedom of association and expression.

The case argued before the State Council — the French court with the final word in surveilling the application of the law and state activities like decrees — largely hinged on allegations that the group had issued calls for violence against people and property. Ultimately, judges deemed that a ban was not “appropriate, necessary, and proportionate” given the statements coming from the collective and the effects of its activities.

This decision marks a setback for France’s hard-line interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, who has been on a campaign to rein in groups deemed as extremist. Minority-rights groups such as the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, activist media outlets like the far-left Nantes Révoltée network, and a spate of neofascist militant groups have found themselves in the crosshairs of Darmanin’s hotheaded defense of “republican order.”

Earth Uprisings rose to national prominence in 2022 as the leading group behind the opposition to the construction of a large water reservoir near Sainte-Soline, a small town in western France. Rural rights activists and a slate of environmental groups have criticized the project as a privatization of common water resources in favor of large agribusiness. An initial protest in October 2022 and a repeat demonstration in March 2023 were the scenes of dramatic clashes with riot police.

Having characterized those protests as “ecoterrorism,” in April Darmanin announced the “dissolution” of Earth Uprisings, an administrative order that would have forcibly barred the collective from continuing its activism and opened individual members to potential surveillance by intelligence services. The decree was not authorized in cabinet until June, however, and was suspended by order of the State Council in August pending a final decision. On October 27, the State Council’s rapporteur presiding over the case came out in favor of the ban. But in a rare reversal, the majority of magistrates veered in favor of the collective.

Muffling Civil Society

Observers are nonetheless skeptical that this marks a major shift in favor of freedom of association.

“The State Council has a restrictive view as to the conditions in which a grouping, and especially one that is inventive in its activism, can be allowed to work,” Lyon-Caen said of the decision. “The State council is accepting what is ultimately a low standard for dissolving an organization.”

The defeat of Darmanin’s dissolution order is part of the fight over the French state’s application of the controversial 2021 “anti-separatism” law. One of the hallmark pieces of securitarian legislation passed under Macron’s presidency, the 2021 law — “defending respect of the principles of the Republic,” as it is formally known — increases state oversight on civil society, with organizations now beholden to a “contract of republican principles” in order to receive public subsidies. Building on France’s existing legislation on political groups and collectives, it added the factor of “provocations” for violence against property, and not just persons, as a condition for banning a group.

Long a dog whistle for referring to state attempts to clamp down on organizations accused of Islamism, “separatism” is increasingly leveled against radical political organizations as a means to delineate the boundaries of acceptable activism and associative life. In the history of the Fifth Republic, founded in 1958, no French government has banned as many groupings or associations as Macron’s. According to Mediapart’s tally, thirty-three groups have been banned since Macron took office in 2017, a trend that has mostly targeted organizations accused of Islamist sympathies but has expanded to encompass far-left and far-right groups.

“On the question of liberties, this decision is still relatively restrictive,” Lyon-Caen told Jacobin, regretting that this State Council left untouched the expanded criteria established in Darmanin’s 2021 anti-separatism law. Critics have been hoping for a firm condemnation of the breaches in that law — and stricter guidelines for protecting freedom of expression and association from Darmanin’s campaign to muffle civil society.

“[The idea of] ‘provoking’ violations of property is an extremely shaky standard,” says Monnier. “That requires wading into the mire of the statements and the freedom of expression of an organization.”

In a series of separate decisions also on the docket, the State Council validated the interior minister’s orders to ban the Lyon-based anti-fascist organization GALE, a far-right grouping in Angers called L’Alvarium, and the Coordination Against Racism and Islamophobia, which was dissolved in 2021.

“French society is fractured right now, and I think there are many magistrates that don’t want to entirely impede the actions of the interior minister,” says Lyon-Caen, who also represented GALE. “The State Council is being very cautious — more than it has been in the past.”

Between pressure from French civil society in uproar over Darmanin’s use of dissolution and a brash interior ministry, the State Council opted to apply a minimal break — one that leaves the broader tightening of civil society untouched. But the legal and political tensions underlying this whole affair are only going to deepen in the years ahead. As the climate crisis deepens, activists and civil liberties advocates want to see firmer protections — namely, for calls or actions that target property.

“Everything hinges on the question of proportionality and the nature of infractions to property,” says Monnier of Greenpeace France. “Even with the scale of the emergency before us, the proportionality of the violations to property will remain the cornerstone of whether they are illegal or not.”

Challenging Legality

Darmanin’s bid to pick a fight with Earth Uprisings was blatantly about jockeying to appear tough on radicals. It is also part of an attempt to delineate the boundaries of acceptable activism. The initial decree in June banning the organization, for example, mentioned its alleged proximity with thinkers like Andreas Malm, author of the popular tract How To Blow Up a Pipeline.

“Violence against property does not deserve the same protections as violence against people,” according to Lyon-Caen, who regrets that many judges don’t have a “dynamic understanding” of the law.

“In France, there’s a palpable skittishness in the courts,” Monnier told Jacobin. “I think the next steps on the question of violations against property will lead us to the European Court of Human Rights, which could deliver a decision reminding France of its obligations in terms of the protection of freedom of expression.”

Ultimately, the boundaries of acceptable activism are being most undermined by the state’s own inaction on the climate issue. Calls for everyday people to “disarm” — as Earth Uprisings puts it — the material and technological basis of environmental injustice clearly have a long future ahead of them. “Earth Uprisings gives us an idea of tomorrow’s legality,” says Lyon-Caen. “The climate crisis requires that we not cling to static ideas of what is legal and what is illegal.”

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