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France bans wearing masks in public while protesting

Demonstration of the movement of yellow vests, in Belfort, December 01, 2018. (Thomas Bresson/Wikimedia Commons)
February 01, 2019

As violent anti-government protests continue in France, the nation’s National Assembly has moved to ban masks worn by protesters in a move that can be seen as restricting free speech.

The recently passed law prohibits protesters from wearing masks at public protests, or face a sentence of one year in prison and fines of up to $17,000, BBC News reported Thursday. Another part of the new law prohibits certain people from protesting altogether, and could grant an offender six months in prison and an $8,500 fine.

The measure was taken in response to the demonstrations carried out by the “gilets jaunes,” or “yellow vest,” movement, which has been behind the weekly protests in France extending for more than two months.

The protests have seen vandalism and destruction of vehicles and businesses in cities like Paris and Bordeaux.

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In early January, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe spoke of the proposed legislation, saying, “We have to preserve the freedom to protest in France and punish those who want to violate this right,” NBC News reported.

The recent law is the next step in punishment for masked protesters who disrupt the public.

In 2009, France passed a law authorizing fines against those who protest while wearing masks and “infringe public order.”

The fines haven’t been enough to stop the behavior, however. Nor has the 80,000 security force officers and 5,000 police officers Philippe sent to control crowds in mid-January.

Protesters have been demonstrating their opposition to the reformist policies of French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as anger over the economy and excessive cost of living in France.

The latest law also permits regional administrators with the authority to issue an injunction against specific individuals that would effectively ban them from participating in protests altogether.

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The individuals facing a protest ban must be repeat offenders and deemed a serious threat to the public due to past violent acts, supporters of the ban said.

“We are not talking about any French person taken at random – we are talking about those who have injured, tried to kill, or destroyed property,” said Aurore Bergé, spokesperson for Macron’s party. “This law is to let those who genuinely want to protest to always do so.”

However, opponents of the ban are concerned that the law would violate their civil liberties, a concern fueled by the fact that offenders’ names will be added and kept in a special police file.

“Who are we to protect the state of law if we’re weakening its essential and fundamental principles,” asked another member of Macron’s party, according to The Guardian.

Other opponents of the law compared the authoritarian measure to that of a Nazi regime.