The Conseil constitutionnel (Constitutional Council) said that lawmakers who passed the controversial legislation had not set out clearly enough what would constitute a breach of the law in such situations.
The proposed ban, part of a wide-ranging new security bill, had caused fierce controversy and seen thousands of people take to the streets in protest.
Article 24 of the Loi relative à la sécurité globale (law on global security) criminalised “disseminating, by any means or medium whatsoever, with the aim of harming their physical or mental integrity, the image of the face or any other identifying element of an officer of the national police or member of the national gendarmerie when acting during a police operation.”
Offenders would risk one year in prison and a €45,000 fine.
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After condemnation from groups including international charities and press freedom organisations, the bill was amended to include a clarification that the intent to harm must be “manifest” and that the law should not interfere with press freedom.
It was passed by MPs, but now the Conseil constitutionnel, the body whose job it is to examine new laws and check they comply with France’s constitution, has rejected Article 24 (which is now article 52 in the revised bill).
The Council said the law failed to specify whether this related only to live operations or also to past ones, and what exactly constituted a police “operation”.
In response to the ruling, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said he would seek “to improve the provisions that were the subject of reservations by the Constitutional Council”.
Christophe Deloire, the head of press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF), tweeted however: “This is very good news for the ability of journalists to cover protests.”
The law had been backed by Darmanin and police unions, who say it is necessary to clamp down on violent acts directed at the country’s police officers.
Police unions say officers and their families have been threatened or attacked after photos or videos were shared online.
However, opponents of the Article say that being able to film or photograph police in a democracy is vital – and that many cases of police brutality or racist behaviour have been uncovered thanks to people filming.
Amateur footage, often shot on camera phones, has led to important discoveries regarding police violence such as when Ladj Ly, director of the Oscar-nominated film Les Misérables, captured on camera the arrest of 20-year-old Abdoulaye Fofana in Montfermeil, an impoverished part of the Paris suburban département of Seine-Saint-Denis.
Police accused Fofana of having thrown cobblestones and shot fireworks at a police car together with others in the neighbourhood, but avoided including their own violent beatings of the young man during the arrest – including pointing a gun at him while handcuffed – which Ly’s video revealed. That was back in 2008, France’s first police violence case sparked by an amateur video, but one of many more to come.
Several videos shot during the ‘yellow vest’ protests also showed violent behaviour from police, some of which has lead to criminal charges.
After the Council’s rejection, the government will now have to alter or scrap Article 24 before the security bill can be signed into law.