April 4, 2019 / 5:55 PM / 3 months ago

Setback for Macron as court vetoes key plank of anti-protest law

PARIS (Reuters) - French President Emmanuel Macron’s crackdown on anti-government protests with tougher police tactics hit a fresh snag on Thursday as France’s Constitutional Court canned one of the central elements of the new rules.

FILE PHOTO: Riot police officers detain a demonstrator during 19th round of "yellow vests" protests in Nice, France, March 23, 2019. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

The measures, ushered in to respond to “yellow vest” demonstrations that have descended off and on into violent riots over the past four months, had already caused unease even within Macron’s party and were decried as heavy-handed by opponents.

They include giving police the power to search demonstrators and ban them from covering their faces, two of the more controversial parts of the legislation which have now been approved by the Constitutional Court.

But the court struck down another article, which would have given police the right to ban anyone pre-emptively identified as a troublemaker from demonstrating.

The court said in a statement that the measure had been drafted too loosely, and did not specify that a person would have had to have been especially violent or destructive in a previous protest to be deemed a threat to public order.

Macron himself had joined opposition politicians in asking the court to examine the legislation, in an attempt to placate the left-leaning wing of his parliamentary majority - and highlighting the sensitivity of the new bill and unease in his party ranks over a lurch to the right on issues like security.

The rules were passed by France’s senate and the lower house of parliament, where Macron’s party has a comfortable majority, but an unprecedented number of his lawmakers abstained.

One MP, Matthieu Orphelin, left the ruling party as a result. He welcomed the court’s decision on Thursday, saying that it showed “that our doubts were justified.”

France’s human rights watchdog had also warned in March of a steady erosion of civil liberties, reflected in the police tactics used during the “yellow vest” protests, which erupted last November as a backlash over the high cost of living.

Thousands of protesters have since been arrested and many wounded, drawing scrutiny over the use of crowd control weapons like dispersal “sting-ball” grenades.

Yet the government has also felt the heat for failing to prevent rioting on Paris’ Champs Elysee in mid-March, when stores were ransacked and restaurants were damaged.

One police union said on Thursday it regretted the Constitutional Court’s decision, adding it would hamper the work of security forces.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said he would examine whether and how to follow up on the scrapped measure, but welcomed the court’s green light for the rest of the new rules.

Macron’s approval ratings fell by three percentage points to 28 percent at the start of April, an Elabe poll for Les Echos and Radio Classique found on Thursday.

That followed three back-to-back months where his popularity gradually recovered from record lows.

Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau, Writing by Sarah White, Editing by William Maclean

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