Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected these rights. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.
Freedom of Speech: While individuals could criticize the government publicly or privately without reprisal, there were some limitations on freedom of speech. Strict antidefamation laws prohibit racially or religiously motivated verbal and physical abuse. Written or oral speech that incites racial or ethnic hatred and denies the Holocaust or crimes against humanity is illegal. Authorities may deport a noncitizen for publicly using “hate speech” or speech constituting a threat of terrorism.
On June 18, the Constitutional Council invalidated core provisions of the new law against online hate speech, adopted by parliament on May 13. The so-called Avia Law required online platforms to remove within 24 hours the following: hateful content based on race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and religion; language trivializing genocide or crimes against humanity; and content deemed sexual harassment. Content related to terrorism and child pornography had to be removed within one hour of being flagged by a user. Social media companies faced fines up to 1.25 million euros ($1.75 million) if they failed to remove the content within the required timeframes. The Constitutional Council ruled that these provisions of the law infringed on freedom of speech and were “not appropriate, necessary, and proportionate.”
On June 19, the Constitutional Court found unconstitutional the law against downloading and possessing files that condone or justify terrorism. The judges found it violated freedoms of expression and communication and stated it was duplicative of existing antiterrorist laws. Introduced following the 2015 wave of terrorist attacks, the law was intended to “prevent the indoctrination of individuals susceptible to commit such acts.”
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: While independent media were active and generally expressed a wide variety of views without restriction, print and broadcast media, books, and online newspapers and journals were subject to the same antidefamation and hate-speech laws that limited freedom of expression.
The law provides protection to journalists who may be compelled to reveal sources only in cases where serious crimes occurred and access to a journalist’s sources was required to complete an official investigation.
Violence and Harassment: In 2019 the NGO Reporters without Borders (RSF) noted growing hatred directed at reporters in the country and an “unprecedented” level of violence from both protesters and riot police directed at journalists during Yellow Vest protests between 2018 and May 2019. The RSF, which reported dozens of cases of police violence and excessive firing of flash-ball rounds at reporters, filed a complaint with the Paris public prosecutor’s office in December 2019. As of year’s end, the investigations were ongoing.
On September 17, Interior Minister Darmanin introduced a new national law-enforcement doctrine aimed at reducing injuries by law enforcement personnel during demonstrations. Certain provisions, including the designation of a referent officer responsible for engaging credentialed members of the press aroused concern from human rights and press organizations, who argued the rules could be used to restrict press access. On September 22, the RSF and 40 media companies requested clarification from Interior Minister Darmanin.
UNESCO’s September report, Safety of Journalists Covering Protests—Preserving Freedom of the Press During Times of Civil Unrest, pointed to the use of flash ball ammunition by French law enforcement agencies as an example of disproportionate use of force. Several journalists were injured by flash balls in 2018, including Boris Kharlamoff, a journalist for the audio press agency A2PRL, who claimed he was hit in the side even though he presented a press badge, and Liberation reporter Nicolas Descottes, who was struck in the face.
Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation is a criminal offense, although it does not carry the possibility of imprisonment as punishment. The law distinguishes between defamation, which consists of the accusation of a particular fact, and insult, which does not.
National Security: The Committee to Protect Journalists raised concerns about police and prosecutors questioning reporters on national security grounds.
Nongovernmental impact: On September 2, to mark the start of the trial of the January 2015 attacks against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the magazine reprinted on its front page the controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that led terrorists to target its headquarters. The reprinted cover provoked condemnation from several Muslim countries and threats from al Qaeda. After receiving death threats, Charlie Hebdo senior staffer Marika Bret required police assistance to be exfiltrated from her home on September 14. On September 23, more than 100 news outlets signed an open letter calling for public support of Charlie Hebdo.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
Under the law intelligence services have the power to monitor suspected threats to public order and detect future terrorists. The law also provides a legal framework for the intelligence services’ activities. Laws against hate speech apply to the internet.
In a May 28 report, the Central Office on the Fight against Crimes Linked to Information and Communication Technology announced it had ordered the removal of 4,332 terrorist-related online contents from February to the end of December, 2019, a 57 percent decrease compared with the previous year. Of 30,883 URLs that internet users flagged to authorities, the report noted it assessed 14,327 (46 percent) of them to be illegal, including 656 URLs related to terrorism–a 63 percent decrease from 2018. The office attributed the drop in terrorist-related content to less online publication by terrorist organizations and to successful EUROPOL efforts in countering and preventing terrorist propaganda online. The majority of illegal content the office found related to child pornography.
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, subject to certain security conditions, and the government generally respected these rights.
The government enacted security legislation in 2019 that gave security forces greater powers at demonstrations, including the power to search bags and cars in and around demonstrations. It also approved making it a criminal offense for protesters to conceal their faces at demonstrations, punishable by one year in prison and 15,000 euros ($18,000) in fines.
In 2019, 210 persons were detained under a new ban on wearing face coverings to protests, which many did to protect themselves from police tear gas In a report released on September 29, Amnesty International accused authorities of using “vague laws” to crack down on antigovernment protesters and deter others from exercising their right to demonstrate. The report said many peaceful demonstrators had been fined, arrested, and prosecuted. According to Amnesty, more than 40,000 persons were convicted in 2018 and 2019 “on the basis of vague laws” for crimes including “contempt of public officials,” “participation in a group with a view to committing violent acts,” and “organizing a protest without complying with notification requirements.”
On January 27, then interior minister Christophe Castaner announced police would stop using GLI-F4 grenades, tear gas grenades containing 26 grams of TNT, that reportedly injured numerous protesters at demonstrations.
On September 17, the government enacted legislation establishing a new doctrine for maintaining order at demonstrations that was intended to be “more protective for the demonstrators” and “reduce the number of injured during demonstrations.” Among the changes are replacing the hand grenade model that is in service with a new model deemed less dangerous, putting in place stricter supervision of defense ball launchers, and implementing the widespread presence of a “supervisor” who assists the shooters to “assess the overall situation and the movements of the demonstrators.”
The constitution and law provide for the freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The law permits the government to cancel and seize passports and identification cards of French nationals in some circumstances, such as when there are serious reasons to believe that they plan to travel abroad to join a terrorist group or engage in terrorist activities.
On March 16, President Macron announced nationwide lock-down measures aimed at curbing the COVID 19 pandemic outbreak. Residents were asked to stay at home except to buy groceries, travel to work, exercise, or seek medical care. Approximately 100,000 police and gendarmes were mobilized throughout the country to enforce the measures, including with the help of drones and helicopters in some regions. Violators faced fines of 135 euros ($162) for first-time offenders, increasing to 3,700 euros ($4,440) for multiple offenses with maximum punishment of up to six months in prison for more than four offenses in a single month.
The Ministry of the Interior announced that police executed 20.7 million interventions, resulting in 1.1 million fines and 570 trials. Several cities and municipalities, including Nice and Cannes, introduced curfews. The country never completely closed its borders, but travel became heavily restricted beginning in April. Persons travelling from within Europe were allowed in for essential reasons only and needed to present travel permits at the border. After eight weeks, the government lifted lockdown measures on May 11. On June 15, the government lifted coronavirus restrictions on movement at its European borders (land, air, and sea) for EU members and a few other countries.
On October 14, President Macron announced a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew in areas most impacted by COVID-19, which included Paris and the Ile-de-France region, Grenoble, Lille, Lyon, Aix-Marseille, Montpellier, Rouen, Saint-Etienne, and Toulouse. On October 22, Prime Minister Castex announced the extension of the curfew to an additional 38 departments in France, bringing the total number of persons who must adhere to the restrictive measures to 46 million (two-thirds of population) in 54 departments.
On October 28, President Macron announced a second wave of nationwide lock-down measures aimed at curbing the COVID 19 pandemic outbreak. French citizens were required to stay at home except to buy groceries, go to school, travel to work, exercise, or seek medical care.
In-country Movement: The law requires persons engaged in itinerant activities with a fixed domicile to obtain a license that is renewable every four years. Itinerant persons without a fixed abode must possess travel documents.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, returning refugees, and other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Calais continued to be a gathering point for migrants from the Middle East and Africa trying to reach the United Kingdom. As of September authorities estimated that approximately 1,000 migrants and refugees lived around Calais, while support groups said the number was closer to 1,500.
On July 21, several human rights groups warned in a letter to Interior Minister Darmanin that hundreds of migrants in the Calais area “no longer had access to drinking water, showers, [and] food.” The regional prefect claimed that two meal distribution sites were functioning and had the capacity to distribute 1,000 meals per day. He stated, “We also have shuttles bringing people to showers, and demand has been consistent for several weeks with about 150 showers per day.” In a September 24 statement issued following a two-day visit to Calais, however, the defender of rights denounced the “degrading and inhumane” living conditions of migrants living in the city. On September 25, the Council of State refused to suspend the order issued by the region’s prefect banning feeding migrants in the center of Calais. On September 29, police dismantled a camp of an estimated 800 migrants and refugees there. According to the prefect, it was the largest dismantling of a Calais camp since the “Jungle” was cleared of approximately 9,000 migrants in 2015 and 2016. The Pas-de-Calais prefecture asserted that conditions in the 500 tents at the site posed “serious problems of security, health, and order,” particularly for staff and patients of a nearby health center. The evacuated migrants were brought to shelters in Pas-de-Calais, other departments in the north, and other regions of the country.
On July 7, the Aix-en-Provence Court of Appeals upheld the May 7 conviction of two police officers for the illegal arrest in April of a legally documented Afghan refugee. The officers drove the man 18 miles from the point of arrest and abandoned him; he also claimed they beat him. One officer received a three-year prison sentence (one year suspended), and the other 18 months (six months suspended), a reduction of their original sentences. The officers were prohibited from police work, one permanently and one for three years.
On July 2, the European Court of Human Rights convicted France for violating protections against inhuman and degrading conditions, prohibited by the European Convention on Human Rights, in the 2013 case of three adult male asylum seekers. The court awarded the victims a total of 32,000 euros ($38,400). The court noted the individuals had to wait between 90 and 131 days before being able to register their asylum claims, rather than the 15 days France required at the time. After registering, the men still could not access lodging and the temporary allowance for asylum seekers, forcing them to live on the streets for months.
Access to Asylum: The laws provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has a system for providing protection to refugees. The system was active and accessible to those seeking protection. The Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Refugees (OFPRA) provided asylum application forms in 24 languages, including English, Albanian, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Turkish, Tamil, and Arabic. Applicants, however, must complete them in French, generally without government-funded language assistance. Applications for asylum must be made on French territory or at a French border-crossing point. Asylum seekers outside of the country may request from a French embassy or consulate a special visa for the purpose of seeking asylum. After arrival in France, the visa holder must follow the same procedure as other asylum seekers in France; however, the visa holder is authorized to work while his or her asylum application is processed and evaluated, unlike other applicants. Asylum seekers may appeal decisions of OFPRA to the National Court on Asylum Law.
In 2018 parliament adopted an asylum and immigration bill intended to reduce the average time for processing asylum applications to six months and shorten from 120 to 90 days the period asylum seekers have to make an application. It also includes measures to facilitate the removal of aliens in detention, extend from 45 to 90 days the maximum duration of administrative detention, and from 16 to 24 hours the duration of administrative detention to verify an individual’s right to stay. The law extends the duration of residence permits for persons granted subsidiary protection and for stateless refugees from one year to four years and enables foreigners who have not been able to register for asylum to access shelter. It includes measures to strengthen the protection of girls and young men exposed to the risk of sexual mutilation, states that a country persecuting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons cannot be considered “safe,” and adopts protective provisions on the right to remain for victims of domestic violence. By law unaccompanied migrant children are taken into the care of the child protection system.
OFPRA stated that priority attention was given to female victims of violence, persons persecuted on the basis of their sexual orientation, victims of human trafficking, unaccompanied minors, and victims of torture.
On September 29, the Anafe migrant assistance group alleged rights violations on the country’s borders, including officials preventing new arrivals from filing asylum claims. “France violates daily the international conventions it has ratified, European law, and its own internal legislation,” Anafe claimed. The report claimed authorities engaged in illegal practices, abuse of procedures, and violations of fundamental rights.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The government considered 16 countries to be “safe countries of origin” for purposes of asylum. A “safe country” is one that provides for compliance with the principles of liberty, democracy, rule of law, and fundamental human rights. This policy reduced the chances of an asylum seeker from one of these countries obtaining asylum but did not prevent it. While individuals originating in a safe country of origin may apply for asylum, they may receive only a special form of temporary protection that allows them to remain in the country. Authorities examined asylum requests through an emergency procedure that may not exceed 15 days. Countries considered “safe” included Albania, Armenia, Benin, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cabo Verde, Georgia, Ghana, India, Kosovo, Mauritius, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Senegal, and Serbia.
Freedom of Movement: Authorities maintained administrative holding centers for foreigners pending deportation. Authorities could hold undocumented migrants in these facilities for a maximum of 90 days, except in cases related to terrorism. There were 23 holding centers on the mainland and three in the overseas territories, with a total capacity of 1,970 persons.
On September 22, six refugee and migrant assistance associations (Association Service Social Familial Migrants, Forum-Refugies-Cosi, France Terre d’Asile, the Inter-Movement Committee for Aid of Evacuees (Cimade), Ordre de Malte, and Solidarite Mayotte) released a joint annual report that estimated 54,000 undocumented migrants were placed in administrative holding centers in 2019, representing a 20 percent increase from 45,000 persons in such centers in 2018.
According to the associations’ annual report, the government detained 3,380 children, including 3,101 in Mayotte. The report noted, however, that in 80 percent of the cases, the duration of detentions did not exceed 24 hours. Since the law prohibits the separation of children from their parents, they were detained together. Civil society organizations continued to criticize the provision of the 2018 asylum and immigration bill that doubled the maximum detention time for foreigners subject to deportation to up to 90 days. In 2019 the government did not report uniformly screening migrants in Mayotte for trafficking indicators prior to their deportation. The government did not report taking steps to address the 3,000 to 4,000 unaccompanied Comorian minors at risk for sex and labor trafficking in the French department of Mayotte by offering protection services such as medical, shelter, or education.
Durable Solutions: The government has provisions to manage a range of solutions for integration, resettlement, and return of migrants and unsuccessful asylum seekers. The government accepted refugees for resettlement from other countries and facilitated local integration and naturalization, particularly of refugees in protracted situations. The government assisted in the safe, voluntary return of migrants and unsuccessful asylum seekers to their home countries. In 2018, the latest year for which statistics were available, the government voluntarily repatriated 10,678 undocumented migrants, including 2,709 minors, to their countries of origin. As of April the government offered an allowance of 650 euros ($780) per person (adults and children) for voluntary return for all asylum seekers coming from countries whose citizens need a visa for France and 300 euros ($360) per person (adults and children) coming from countries whose citizens do not need a visa for France and citizens coming from Kosovo.
A parliamentary report released on September 23 found that despite recognizing significant progress since 2018, progress remained to be made in the integration of refugees and asylum seekers in the country. The report stressed the need to improve access to French learning and employment. It recommended the creation of counselors specialized in accompanying refugees to facilitate access to employment.
Temporary Protection: Authorities may grant individuals a one-year renewable permit and may extend the permit for an additional two years. According to OFPRA, the government did not grant temporary protection in 2019, the most recent year for which information was available.
OFPRA reported there were 1,493 stateless persons in the country at the end of 2019. It attributed statelessness to various factors, including contradictions among differing national laws, government stripping of nationality, and lack of birth registration. As the agency responsible for the implementation of international conventions on refugees and stateless persons, OFPRA provided benefits to stateless persons. OFPRA’s annual report stated that it made 364 stateless status requests in 2019 and granted stateless status to 56 persons in 2019. The government provided a one-year residence permit marked “private and family life” to persons deemed stateless that allowed them to work. After two permit renewals, stateless persons could apply for and obtain a 10-year residence permit.
The law affords persons the opportunity to gain citizenship. A person may qualify to acquire citizenship if: either of the person’s parents is a citizen, the person was legally adopted by a citizen, the person was born in the country to stateless parents or to parents whose nationality does not transfer to the child, or the person marries a citizen. A person who has reached the legal age of majority (18) may apply for citizenship through naturalization after five years of habitual residence in the country. Applicants for citizenship must have good knowledge of both the French language and civics.