As Palestinians come under devastating attacks from Israeli state forces, in France, efforts to build solidarity with Palestine face a climate of intense hostility. While a demonstration was planned in Paris on Saturday, May 15, interior minister Gérald Darmanin issued a straightforward ban on any protests over Palestine. After a tweet by Darmanin announcing the ban, the Paris police prefecture issued a decree to make any such demonstration illegal, to avoid any “disturbances.” The decree argues that protests over Palestine could bring together “risky elements aimed at provoking violent confrontations with the police.”
Such a restriction against protests in defense of Palestinians is, sadly, nothing new in France. Already in 2014, the state banned a demonstration for Palestine organized by the GUPS Paris (Union Générale des étudiants de Palestine), PYM France (Mouvement des Jeunes Palestiniens), Génération Palestine, Fatah-France, the PIR (Parti des indigènes de la République), the UJFP (Union Juive Française pour la paix), and the Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste (NPA). Back then, the demonstration went ahead despite the ban (rallying around ten thousand people). But participants were arrested, and Alain Pojolat, a leading member of the NPA, was charged with “organizing a protest in defiance of the ban.”
The question of why demonstrations for Palestine have been banned is pretty easy to answer. Besides the French state’s clear complicity with Israel, demonstrations for Palestine are one of the primary tools of political expression for Arabs in France. The false accusation that a “new antisemitism” is pervasive in the banlieues and among Arabs is the key argument used in order to muzzle this political expression.
The decree issued by the police prefect stated that there is a risk the “confrontations between Palestinians and Israelis” will be transposed to the French capital. This absurd “risk” is often invoked in order to delegitimize — or worse, to criminalize — French anti-Zionism. Yet it ignores the fact that this is already an international struggle. Or better, the ban reflects the fact that Palestine is a political compass for the vast majority of Arabs living in France. At pro-Palestinian demonstrations, masses of Arabs raising their political demands are to be seen on public places — and this is a risk that does indeed trouble the French state.
Darmanin’s decision comes in the context of a series of measures by the government to demonize the Left and political anti-racism — and to stake out its own authoritarian credentials. In a recent TV debate, Macron’s interior minister challenged far-right leader Marine Le Pen for being “soft” on Islam, and higher education minister Frédérique Vidal announced plans to suppress “Islamo-leftism” — a concept mainly used by the far right — on campus and in university research agendas. If in 2017 Macron’s campaign again raised the call for republican unity against Le Pen, in office, it has consistently taken up far-right talking points to crush actual anti-racist and anti-fascist organising. The French political situation seems disastrous for anti-racism — and it will be no surprise if we see the effects during next spring’s presidential election.
As the current conflict illustrates, anti-imperialism is a central issue in today’s political sphere. It is strategically important for the French state to counter any attempt at organizing by anti-imperialist forces in the French metropolis, however few they are. In this context, French anti-Zionism is under particular surveillance. Sadly, while the COVID-19 lockdown has seen many voices in French media denouncing the loss of freedoms or the fact that we cannot party anymore, far fewer seem concerned with speaking out against the growing loss of fundamental political liberties in France — especially when it comes to Palestine.
While the anti-imperialist camp is under harsh attacks in France, also at issue is the very basis of organizing, demonstrating, and political expression. This is not just a matter of the determination of any given group of activists but has to be addressed by every single part of the radical and reformist Left. The political situation in France is becoming ever more dangerous — racism is growing exponentially, and activists are being criminalized and even sometimes arrested. We will continue to support Palestine. Now, we have to fight even for the right to do so.