French President Emmanuel Macron, in a more than two-hour-long, wide-ranging interview on Friday with the online media outlet Brut, rejected accusations his government had taken an illiberal turn with a contested bill to protect police officers and a crackdown on Islamist groups.
The interview, broadcast live by the video-based news portal on social media, was seen as an opportunity for Macron to reach out to young people amid a wave of protests over freedom of speech and police brutality, and amid the heavy strain placed on France’s younger generations by the Covid-19 pandemic and its attendant lockdowns.
Sitting around a table with his interviewers, the French leader answered questions on police violence, racial profiling, secularism and the place of Islam in French society, social assistance for young people, protecting the environment and his presumed bid for re-election in 2022.
The controversial general security bill, which would have curbed the freedom to share images identifying police officers, a key plank in Macron’s plans to court right-wing voters by being tougher on law and order, had sparked outrage among journalists. Lawmakers from Macron’s ruling LREM party said on Monday they would propose a “complete rewrite” of part of the draft law.
Not an ‘authoritarian state’
Asked about international media branding his police plans “illiberal”, Macron told Brut: “Today, the situation is not satisfactory but, forgive me, that doesn’t make us an authoritarian state.”
“We’re not Hungary, Turkey or somesuch,” he said. “I can’t let it be said we’re reducing liberties in our country.”
Protests over the plans escalated after the release of video footage of a Black man named Michel Zecler being beaten up by three police officers inside his own music studio earlier this month. The police allegedly involved have since been charged in the case.
Macron said that what the three police officers did was unacceptable, but that it did not mean the force as a whole was inherently violent and racist.
Society has become more violent too, Macron said, and police had also been injured in clashes, including in Paris.
“A policewoman was beaten up by protesters there. If you don’t look at society in its entirety, you’re not being fair,” Macron said.
The president said he had felt let down by Western governments and intellectuals after French teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded by a Muslim 18-year-old after he had shown cartoons of Prophet Muhammad in class.
Following Paty’s murder Macron pledged to stand firm against assaults on French values and his government launched investigations into mosques suspected of fomenting Islamist ideology, triggering anti-French protests in some Muslim countries and some criticism in the West.
“France was attacked because it defended freedom of speech,” Macron said. “We were very lonely.”