Published: 4 March 2021
“No civil society actor can counter the shrinking spaces for civil society on their own.” – Laure Paradis, a project officer with VoxPublic, initiator of the French Coalition for Association freedoms.
By working together, members of the coalition led by VoxPublic unite strengths and expertise to promote and defend the rights of civil society actors and to provide response strategies to the growing repression experienced by associations.
In the last years, civil society actors in France witnessed funding cuts from public bodies and local government, stigmatisation of CSOs and activists, and personal attacks towards activists. Legislation has been adopted criminalising the help to migrants and led to repression and intimidation towards organisations and individuals working on this topic. VoxPublic is working towards supporting organisations that experience such problems. Laure Paradis, a project officer with VoxPublic clarified:
“In our work as a coalition, we learned that we can only be successful if each CSO targeted by one or several attacks will be able to build its strategy to protect the space it needs to freely implement its activities. We developed a booklet with some tips and tricks in which we classified the attacks in four types: political, police-related, judicial, and financial and outlined strategies to counteract those.”
In this already difficult context, in 2020 the French government proposed a bill to combat Islamist radicalism – the bill has the potential to worsen the situation for the civil society sector. The proposed law comes as a response to three deadly attacks in 2020, including the one against the French teacher Samuel Paty. As Laure stressed:
“Apart from the controversial tools to restrict what is called ‘separatism’ by the French government, the freedoms of CSOs are targeted as well. Straight after the attack against Samuel Paty, two Muslim associations were dissolved without any evidence or information about what they have been accused of. The new bill is going to create dangerous legal grounds for authorities to dissolve associations.
The government wants to implement an obligation for associations to sign a contract, requiring them to ‘respect the Republic principles’, to receive public funds. This vague concept opens the way to dangerous interpretations both for the delivery of approvals, but also for the subsidies. In a reaction, the coalition contributed to an article in the French newspaper, Libération, to explain the worrying implications of this bill for the whole sector.”
Members of the coalition fear that the new bill could create a climate of suspicion against every association that criticises its content as such organisations may appear as the” enemy of the Republic”. The coalition launched a petition that gathered around 8000 signatures from associations all over France. Laure shared that: “[…] currently there is quite an important number of CSOs mobilised on this topic. Recently, just before the bill was voted in the French Assembly, we gathered associations in front of the National Assembly, displaying a large banner saying ‘Anti-separatism law: a law against associations!’.
By attacking the freedom of association, opinion, expression, and demonstration and by introducing new controls to reinforce administrative and political arbitrariness, this bill if adopted, will weaken the fabric of French associations.”
The coalition was less successful to attract public attention on the topic, however. The pressure on CSOs is not yet perceived as a democratic problem by the public. The coalition is hoping to change that. As Laure explained: “The fact that there is almost no reaction from the public to this proposed law is worrying us the most. A lot of political parties represented in the National Assembly voted in favor. It demonstrates that there is too little public pressure on the MPs who should have realised how problematic this bill is.
The official message to justify such a law is always the same: ‘it’s for your security’. It is very difficult to counter such an argument in the months following a terrorist attack. But the result is terrible since the government used this tragic context to pass a law that could silence many associations in the future.”
To shed light on the wrongdoings, the coalition, together with the Observatory of association freedoms in France, has collected a hundred cases of associations attacked at the local, regional, or national level. They published a report that describes the wide variety of attacks in the autumn of 2020 and received attention from parliamentarians and journalists as well as wide press coverage.
To the question, if the coalition is going to share their expertise on this matter with other CSOs, Laure confirmed that “yes, we planned workshops with other coalitions that are supported by Civitates to exchange experiences.
Two separate workshops will take place, with the Hungarian coalition and with the Italian one, to learn about the main trends in their countries that affect civil society and how they react, even in a repressive context such as in Hungary. We will discuss the situation around the consequences of the pandemic and the challenges that this crisis brought along for CSOs in the respective countries. We need to keep working on democratic space and associative freedom for people to have a good understanding of what it is.”