Emmanuel Macron’s Government Is Silencing Activist Media

France’s interior minister has announced plans to ban left-wing media platform Nantes Révoltée after it publicized an anti-fascist protest ending in a few broken windows. Based on guilt by association, the move is a troubling attack on press freedom.

French president Emmanuel Macron speaks to the media ahead of a Weimar Triangle meeting to discuss the ongoing Ukraine crisis on February 8, 2022 in Berlin, Germany. (Hannibal Hanschke - Pool / Getty Images)

On a morning press circuit this January 25, France’s interior minister Gérald Darmanin was in combative mood as he sparred with public radio host Léa Salamé over the 2020 death of Cédric Chouviat. An independent medical report released the previous day had reaffirmed the direct role police played in the death of the forty-two-year-old father of five, who repeatedly protested “I’m suffocating” as officers choked him in a prolonged stranglehold following a routine traffic stop.

“I don’t want this morning’s [program] to be transformed into an indictment hearing of the national police or the gendarmerie,” Darmanin retorted. “It’s time that we stop the police bashing — we’d all be better off for it.” The discussion petered out, shifting toward Darmanin’s “regret” that the State Council had rebuffed a government decree rebanning the sale and consumption of CBD, an entirely benign cannabis substitute.

Hours later, Emmanuel Macron’s right-wing interior minister launched another sally against the supposed epidemic of “police bashing.” During government questions before the National Assembly, Darmanin announced the imminent dissolution of the left-wing media platform and forum Nantes Révoltée (“Nantes in Revolt”).

Valérie Oppelt, an MP for Macron’s party in the western French city, prepared the ground: “Last Friday, a protest organized in central Nantes degenerated into unprecedented attacks against the state and law enforcement, as well as residents and local businesses. My thoughts go to all the victims of this agitation,” she lamented. “The left-wing groupuscule Nantes Révoltée, which peddles hatred of our institutions, was the driving force behind this rally. . . . Mr. Minister, I ask that you initiate the dissolution of Nantes Révoltée, the cause of Friday night’s excesses.”

Served this softball pitch, Darmanin agreed that it was time to put an end to unauthorized protests. Boasting of the arrest of three protesters from the Nantes events — one sentenced to prison after an immediate arraignment and trial, in a practice widely criticized by civil liberties watchdogs — he then announced that he was doing just as Oppelt asked. To her nodding approval, Darmanin proclaimed: “As soon as things are in place, and we’re beyond reproach . . . I’ll propose to the prime minister that he introduce [the dissolution] before cabinet.”

A passing remark from a minister hardwired to see threats against the police around every corner? A premeditated maneuver, with the trappings of parliamentary legitimacy and oversight to boot? Either way, January 25 was just another day in the accelerating clampdown on civil liberties in France — a country, as Darmanin sees things, at the mercy of lawless protesters and yearning for the firm hand of order.

Silencing Critics

Despite drawing national attention, Nantes Révoltée is a small, ragtag outfit of citizen-journalists and activists, founded in France’s sixth-largest city in 2012. In a local media ecosystem dominated by large press groups, it is an important forum for alternative political commentary and news. The group’s website frequently relays information about left-wing protests, rallies, and other political happenings in the local area. Boasting over 200,000 followers on its Facebook page, Nantes Révoltée frequently documents cases of police violence, distributing videos that have contributed to the growing calls for reform of the aggressive tactics of interior ministry forces. In addition to its online activities, the group publishes an irregular and a highly irreverent print review.

Since its founding a decade ago, Nantes Révoltée’s history has mirrored the development of France’s most important social movements, from the 2016 protests against the El Khomri labor law reforms up through the gilets jaunes. Alongside similar outfits operating in other major cities, such as Paris Luttes Info, Rebellyon, and Le Poing, based in Montpellier, Nantes Révoltée provides critical information for social movements, reverberating beyond France’s vibrant anarchist subcultures.

At the time of writing, the group has not received an official order from the government, following Darmanin’s statement in Parliament. If or when it does, it will have fifteen days to formulate and present an appeal, the failure of which will lead to the closing of its website and social media pages. If the dissolution comes to fruition, it could serve as pretext for future clampdowns — posing questions as to whether similar forums will likewise earn the interior ministry’s wrath.

Given that Nantes Révoltée has, to its credit, carved out a special place in the national culture of the far left, even the threat of its dissolution is a worrying precedent. One member of the organization, who requested anonymity, boasted of Nantes Révoltée’s early role in dispelling the myth that the gilets jaunes were a reactionary movement — a narrative partly peddled by the government, which persisted several weeks after the initial outburst of protests in November 2018.

Nantes Révoltée was also instrumental in mediatizing the fight over the so-called “ZAD,” or the “zone to be defended” in Notre-Dame-des-Landes. For years, this parcel of agricultural land was occupied by alter-globalists and other environmental activists in order to avert the construction of a new airport in the Nantes region, ultimately abandoned by the government in 2018. Over the years-long battle for the ZAD, French riot police forces intermittently launched full-blown sieges of the occupied territory.

More recently, the group was instrumental in magnifying the death of Steve Maia Caniço. This twenty-four-year-old man drowned on the night of Nantes’s summer 2019 Fête de la Musique, during an aggressive police assault against a late-night rave held along the river Loire.

Incitement to Violence?

Such a record of “police bashing” was no doubt on Darmanin’s mind when he announced Nantes Révoltée’s dissolution. The official justification, however, revolves around the events of January 21. That Friday night, as documented on the group’s site, several hundred protesters responded to a call for an unauthorized, nighttime anti-fascist march through the city center in response to France’s worsening political climate. Launching fireworks, brandishing torches and banners — one of which read, “The horizon is not promising. Unite, the only solution” — they repeatedly clashed with riot police.

Tagging walls with slogans like “The city belongs to us” or “Stone the BAC,” a police unit specialized in policing the banlieues, protesters splattered red paint on the statue of Georges de Villebois-Mareuil, a nineteenth-century French army officer and cofounder of Action Française, the mother of French far-right groups. One altercation, resulting in several injuries, broke out when the crowd of protesters clashed with a pack of fascist demonstrators who had assembled nearby to commemorate the decapitation of Louis XVI on January 21 . . . 1793.

“Several collectives called for this march, even a union,” the Nantes Révoltée source, who also attended the protest, told Jacobin:

Nothing out of the ordinary: a nighttime protest, with a very nice torchlight procession, fireworks, and smoke bombs. That was all — I guess you could call it an aesthetic demonstration. But at the end of the protest, two windows were shattered. But frankly, all this is nothing out of the ordinary.

Whatever one’s view of the political expediency of anti-fascist street battles, the claim that a political media platform can be guilty by association is a dangerous precedent. If Darmanin goes ahead with his threats, his case appears to rest on very spurious grounds: the relaying of a call for an unauthorized protest that happened to result in a few extremely minor acts of vandalism (the windows of a Zara store were among the victims), and the publication of images of that damage or of graffiti calling to violently resist police forces, constitute an incitement to violence dangerous to the Republic itself.

It appears that this thin gruel of “incitement to violence” is little more than a pretext. Shutting down groups like Nantes Révoltée has long been on the wish list of powerful police unions like Alliance. Last July, this police officers’ association asked the interior ministry to censure photos satirizing a national police recruitment campaign published on the Nantes Révoltée Facebook page. “It’s incitement of hatred, police-bashing,” an Alliance spokesperson told regional daily Ouest-France.

A week after he told the National Assembly that he was initiating the procedure of dissolution, Darmanin again had the chance to show his sympathies. On February 3, he appeared alongside Valérie Pécresse, Marine Le Pen, and Éric Zemmour — the trio of right-wing presidential candidates — at Alliance’s annual convention in Paris. Although they were invited, center-left candidates like Anne Hidalgo and Yannick Jadot did not attend. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the only national party leader to snub a police rally held outside the National Assembly last May, was not even invited.

The actual legal path to dissolution, should Darmanin’s threats materialize, appears sinuous. Nantes Révoltée’s fate would largely depend on the particularities of French law: Darmanin’s characterization of the group as a groupement de fait, a de facto organization of individuals and not a press platform, is a tactful way of circumventing the more protective status that shields official media outlets, derived from a landmark 1881 law. For the government and the right-wing opposition pushing it to clamp down on this local media outlet, Nantes Révoltée is an assembly of political radicals who happen to run a news website.

Trampled Liberties

This interpretation has civil liberties advocates up in arms. “Relaying a call for a demonstration — does that really go so far as to threaten ‘public order’?” Anne-Sophie Simpere of Amnesty International told Jacobin, noting that the notion of risks to public order is “problematic because it is defined very broadly so as to prohibit demonstrations.” And the images of broken store windows? “Well, that’s something that BFM TV [shows] every weekend when there’s a protest,” said Simpere.

Insisting that Nantes Révoltée is, indeed, a media organization, on January 26, the site’s lawyers released a press communiqué lambasting the interior minister’s threats: “According to Mr. Darmanin, it is necessary to dissolve any organization that relays calls to protest if, after the fact, damage is committed during that same protest. That is not serious and is contrary to republican principles.”

“All the words that [Nantes Révoltée] publishes on its website or in the print review are activities protected by the 1881 law on press freedom,” Raphaël Kempf, one of the attorneys for Nantes Révoltée, told Jacobin. He rejected the idea that the group could be suppressed according to a 1936 law authorizing the dissolution of certain political organizations:

If, for example, there are libelous or defamatory words, or statements that might provoke people to commit offenses, those are prosecuted under the framework of the law on press freedom. Nantes Révoltée has never been the object of a single prosecution for a breach of that law, for what is called in legal jargon an “abuse of freedom of expression.”

This nuance has been lost on the ever-more-bellicose interior minister, whom Macron has given free rein to please law-and-order voters and buff up the government’s claims to represent the “republican” center. The move against Nantes Révoltée also comes on the heels of a broader crackdown on associations, with the introduction last month of so-called “republican contracts” for associations that receive state funding — a key element of a 2021 law on republican principles. Designed to ensure more official “oversight” over Muslim associations, civil liberties advocates fear they will also be a weapon against the broader associative community. Building off the 1936 statutes, the 2021 law likewise authorizes the dissolution of an association for inciting “violent acts against persons or property.”

As Darmanin imagines it, the dissolution of Nantes Révoltée is the logical next step in a series of headline-grabbing — but largely cosmetic — actions taken against neofascist groups. On January 5, the cabinet enacted the dissolution of the so-called Zouaves, an informal Paris-area gang of neofascists who attack leftist bars and protests. In March 2021, the government announced the dissolution of Génération identitaire, a more official far-right organization known for conducting high-profile actions, including vigilante missions to stop migrants from entering France. Though the State Council, France’s highest administrative court, authorized the move, the group’s site is still active one year later.

There’s also probably some personal psychodrama behind Darmanin’s republican charade. After all, this is the minister who accused Marine Le Pen of being “soft” on Islam during a TV debate last February. In the late 2000s, while climbing the ranks of the center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP, the party of figures like Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, today known as Les Républicains), he contributed several articles to Politique magazine, a monthly propaganda organ of the revived Action Française, France’s ur-fascist group founded by the royalist and Vichy-collaborator Charles Maurras. “Mr. Minister,” the group tweeted in February 2021, “there’s still time to renew your membership.”