Who has the power to ban protests in France?

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Who has the power to ban protests in France?
Members of neo-Nazi group "Comite du 9 Mai" (committee of May 9) march in Paris. Photo by Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP

Controversy has flared in France after a march of neo-Nazis in Paris was allowed to go ahead, just days after anti-Macron protesters had been banned from banging saucepans near his official events. But who actually decides which protests are allowed to go ahead?


France is a country that enjoys a good protest - every year thousands of marches and demos take place around the country on subjects as diverse as women's rights, immigration or the reintroduction of bears into the Pyrenees mountains.

Most demos are protesting against something - such as the recent mass marches over the government's plans to reform the pension system which saw more than 1 million people take to the streets in towns and cities around France - but others are demonstrations of support, such as recent events in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and the women of Iran.

But what they all have in common is that they must be given permission in advance by authorities.


In general, most French people support the right to protest and demonstrate - a right enshrined in the French constitution and one that politicians are always quick to affirm they support, even if they condemn violent acts by individual protesters.

For example Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, after violence flared at pension protests around the country, tweeted: "It is a right to demonstrate and make your disagreements known. But the violence and destruction that we have seen today are unacceptable."

But the question of banning protest has been thrust into the spotlight recently by a march in Paris on Monday of the neo-nazi group Comité du 9-mai (committee of May 9th). Although the protest of around 500 people was peaceful, many people were outraged that the group of masked people had been allowed to march displaying neo-nazi symbols.


Socialist Party senator David Assouline said: "It's unacceptable to have allowed 500 neo-Nazis and fascists parading in the heart of Paris. Their organisations, the display of their ideology, slogans, insignia are as much an insult to the dead as an incitement to racial hatred."

Many people also compared this to recent bans of 'casserolades' - groups of anti-Macron protesters who had taken to gathering and banging saucepans in the vicinity of the president or his ministers while they were on official engagements.

Ian Brossat, spokesman for the French communist party, wryly summed it up: "Les casseroles sont manifestement plus dangereuses que les bruits de bottes..." [saucepans are clearly more dangerous than jackboots].

So, who actually decides on whether protests can go ahead?

The standard answer is local authorities, specifically the préfecture.

In Paris this is the Préfecture de Police, in the rest of the country it is officially the Préfet - local authority leader - who has the final say, although in practice decisions are made on the advice of local police. 


After the neo-Nazi march, the Paris police préfecture released a statement saying that they didn't have the power the stop the march going ahead; bans can only be made on public order grounds and this group have marched on and around May 9th for several years with no public order issues.

They added that in January a police ban on an extreme right event had been overturned by the courts.


Similarly, the casserolade bans were made by local authorities in areas where members of the government were visiting (although it's not hard to believe that there might have been political pressure from Paris). 

What about the interior minister?

The person in charge of all domestic security issues in France is the Interior Minister, a post currently held by Gérald Darmanin, a man who likes to be seen to take a hard line on security issues. 

In the wake of outrage about the neo-Nazis, Darmanin told the Assemblée nationale that: "In view of what we have seen in the streets of the capital (...) I have instructed the police chiefs and local authorities that any ultra-right or extreme right activist, or any association or collective which will file demonstrations, will be met with prohibition orders."


So who actually has the power to ban a demonstration?

Technically, Darmanin can only request that local préfectures take action, although he does have the option to bring legal action if they ignore his request - but the initial decision on each individual event remains in the hands of local authorities.

It's not uncommon for local authorities to ban events - especially in Paris where protests are extremely regular events - but these are usually done on the grounds of public safety or the likelihood of disorder.

The Code de la sécurité interior states that authorities can ban an event, "if they judge that the event is likely to create a public order issue". 

Despite Darmanin's call to ban all extreme right events, local authorities will still need to justify any ban.

He has since written to all local authorities, telling them to "pay particular attention to the declarations of demonstrations carried by individuals from disbanded groups, calling for hatred or claiming violent action, so that the images seen in Paris will not be reproduced."

The letter also suggests ground on which such events could be banned, including "the risks of material disturbance to public order; risks of clashes or counter-demonstration; the risk of slogans or comments likely to challenge national cohesion or the principles enshrined in the Declaration of Human Rights; an apology for collaboration [during World War II]; any amalgam between immigration and Islamism or the risk of criminal offences being committed, notably incitement to hatred or discrimination."


Any protest group that has an event banned has the option to appeal to the courts - specifically the juge administratif. This is a single over-seeing judge who reviews local authority decisions - they can act within days so that marches can be reinstated for the planned date if they rule that a ban was not justified.


Although they usually uphold the decision of the local authority, they sometimes differ in their views and order officials to allow a previously banned event to go ahead - as happened in Paris in January. 

In this case, police refused to allow an event organised by an extreme right group - a march with flaming torches to honour Saint Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, because of disorder at previous events by the same group. The judge, however, ruled that trouble flared only at the edges of the event, and was not an integral part of the march.

If this happens, authorities are required to provide appropriate policing for the event. 

It is not, however, a criminal offence to attend a march or event that has not been given permission - only the organisers of such events are criminally liable. 

Group ban

What the interior minister does have is the power to ban certain organisations if they are deemed to be extremist, although this too is subject to approval by the courts.

Darmanin has exercised this right several times, banning several groups associated with extremist forms of Islamism as well as the extreme right anti-migrant group Géneration identitaire. Any events that such banned groups attempted to organise would be extremely unlikely to be given permission to go ahead.


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