French law on authorisation for public gatherings overturned

Organised street gatherings are now allowed without authorisation, although gatherings of over 5,000 people are still banned under Covid-19 health guidelines. 

7 July 2020
Protesters taking to the streets. A French law on demanding authorisation for public gatherings during the Covid-19 health crisis has been overturnedDespite the law requiring authorisation for public protests, many went ahead without
By Joanna York

A law demanding official authorisation prior to organising public gathering was overturned yesterday (July 6) by French government administrative court le Conseil d’Etat.

The law was put in place by the French government on May 31, during the Covid-19 health crisis.

It marked a subtle change in existing procedures, which specified that organised gatherings, or “manifestations,” have to be declared to officials on health and safety grounds. They do not, however, have to be authorised by public officials in order to go ahead legally.

Manifestations” in France can include protests, as well as other outdoor gatherings such as car rallies, street parties, small association gatherings.

Read more: France legalises protests despite ongoing health emergency

Read more: Religious gathering ban is illegal, says high court

Authorisation law may have been 'infringement on freedom'

Judges from le Conseil d’Etat said that the law requiring authorisation before a public gathering could be organised was “excessive”. 

They added that “serious doubts exist” over whether the order to gain prior authorisation “disproportionately infringed on the freedom to gather in the streets".

The judge who announced the end of the ban yesterday said: “In normal times organised public gatherings have to be publicly declared to authorities. Prefects can then ban gatherings that risk disturbing public order, for example, if they believe planned health precautions are insufficient.”

The judge went on to say that the demand for authorisation for gatherings put in place on May 31, “reversed this logic, as all organised public gatherings were banned unless the prefect authorised them". 

Of particular concern was the fact that the May 31 law did not stipulate a time frame for a prefect to give a decision on whether or not gatherings were authorised, making it difficult for organisers to plan them properly.

The judge also added that many notable organisations had been against the need for authorisation. These included those by trade unions, housing rights groups, and anti-racism organisations.

In overturning the law, le Conseil d’Etat have reinstated the previous system in which public gatherings had to be declared to, but not authorised by, officials.

 

Ban suspended by judges, before being overturned

Le Conseil d’Etat had already suspended the law demanding authorisation on 13 June, prior to overturning it yesterday.  

This initial ban, instated on May 31, was put in place while France was in a state of medical emergency during the Covid-19 crisis. It did not allow organised public gatherings on the basis that, at the time, no more than 10 people were allowed to meet in a public place. 

However, the ban was modified the day after it was put in place to allow public gatherings that were authorised by town halls or department prefects, as long as barrier measures were maintained.

Large gatherings still a health risk

While the right to protest in France without authorisation has been reinstated, le Conseil d’Etat warned that large public gatherings can still pose a health risk. 

As such, the judges ruled that gatherings of over 5,000 people will remain banned in France for the time being. 

They argued that this ban was still “justified” considering the current Covid-19 health situation. 

They also issued a reminder that all public gatherings should be organised in such a way that barrier measures can be respected.  

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