A Blank Check for Violence? French Senate Votes on Social Amnesty Bill

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, one of the supporters of the proposed law.Photo by Remi Noyon, courtesy of Creative Commons

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, one of the supporters of the proposed law.
Photo by Remi Noyon, courtesy of Creative Commons

Last week, the French Senate adopted a proposition for a new law that would grant amnesty towards those who committed crimes during social movements. This text, which will need to be examined by the National Assembly, is sharply critiqued by employers and opposing political parties, who see it as a blank check for violence. The bill is expected to annul condemned criminals and disciplinary sanctions for violations committed between January 1, 2007 and February 1, 2013, but only for those subject to a maximum of five years in prison.

The Minister of Labor, Michel Sapin, estimated on Monday that the modifications provided in this new law were “fundamental.” “That which the government was very sensitive towards, was paying close attention to what was being pardoned,” declared Sapin. “Nothing that can be considered violence against people can be pardoned, nothing that can be challenging public authority…will be pardoned. We paid very close attention to ensure that the more serious crimes will not be pardoned.”

On Monday, March 4, the French Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls, declared himself a skeptic. He is a proponent of the right to free speech, which is necessary in a democracy, and supports the use of “social dialogue” as a means of fighting for jobs. He did also state, however, that “anger and violence are not possible in a democracy like ours.” Essentially, Valls believes in upholding the foundation of free speech and other freedoms upon which democracy was built, and would like to see people expressing their needs properly and without violence. Valls was careful to assure the public that his skepticism was not related to freedom of speech, but only towards the new law being considered.

Similarly, the Minister of Consumer Affairs, Benoît Hamon, qualified this law as a “message of peace and dialogue” on Sunday, March 3, 2013, while defending himself against accusations of encouraging violence. “Violence is not acceptable, so we must want to carry a message of peace, of dialogue and a willingness to forgive in place [of violence].” Hamon’s message was one that supported the old adage, the “pen is mightier than the sword,” but also applied to the idea that in order to truly practice peace, those who have been condemned must be forgiven.

The proposition of this new law was prepared by friends of Jean-Luc Melenchon and has been denounced by the UMP, a center-right political party, for being “ideology and patronage.” Thus far, the bill would provide amnesty for convictions of property crimes, destruction and degradation, committed during social conflicts. The law may eventually be expanded to encompass pardoning acts committed during labor disputes, union activities of employees as well as public officials, offenses committed in collective movement protests and/or the refusal to submit to DNA testing, among others. The bill was adopted by 174 votes to 171, with the various leftist groups approving it, while the right and center groups were in opposition.

During the Senate discussion, two hundred to three hundred activists of the Front de Gauche and unionists gathered outside the Senate building to support the new law. Jean-Luc Mélenchon himself was at the public gathering and was heard shouting, “Down with the violence that continues against us!” With him was the co-chair of the Parti de Gauche, Martine Billard.

While the left-wing groups appear to be rejoicing over the new law and the pardoning of their unionist minions, outrage over the law is obvious. “This is an absolute patronage text, a text of injustice and battle of the classes,” denounced Hervé Mariton, a National Assembly representative of Drôme, a department in Southeastern France. Senator Pierre Charon accused the left of “excusing those who should not be [excused] for reasons of ideology and patronage.” Valérie Pécresse called the President out on his disinterest in this important matter in her Tweet, “Violence is becoming excusable? The silence of François Hollande is deafening and irresponsible.” Interestingly, Hollande has been rather quiet on the whole topic and his position can only be assumed, though his inaction does speak volumes. The CGPME (General Confederation of Small Businesses) also protested against “clemency for trade unionists” by noting that “conversely, a boss who does not exactly respect every procedure during the election of delegates and is found guilty of a misdemeanor is liable to one year imprisonment.” The implication is that an employee should be held equally accountable.

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