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French Climate Protesters Arrested - Can Macron Survive the Heat?

Updated: Mar 4

This year, on the 20th of June, French police arrested 18 members of the climate activist group Les Soulèvements de la Terre (SLT). In response, SLT denounced the arrests as a "large-scale police operation... and intimidation operation against the social movement as a whole."

Despite SLT's lack of a clear hierarchy, the group believes that the arrests were carried out with targeted precision. The SLT specifically denounced the arrest of an SLT spokesperson, who had been recently invited to share the group's views on several media platforms.

Stating that the arrest was “directly aimed at preventing him from expressing himself publicly: an unacceptable attempt to muzzle freedom of expression", the SLT went on further to claim that “As we know, the real criminal association is the one between the government, the agro-industrial lobby and the construction sector that is on the process of destroying the earth irreversibly." Shortly after, on the 21st of June, the French government ordered the dissolution of SLT.

Undeterred, the group has mobilised 151 simultaneous protests across France to happen on the 28th of June, demanding the release of their fellow activists. The government argues that SLT's dissolution is necessary – interior minister Gérald Darmanin asserted, "no cause can justify the especially numerous and violent acts called for and provoked by this grouping."

However, the group's dissolution is only lawful if it is an organised association declared with the public authorities. The lawyers representing SLT, Raphaël Kempf and Aïnoha Pascual, argued that the group is "horizontal and organic" and therefore is not an association which can be disbanded.

On the SLT's website, anyone can arrange a protest as a response to the arrests, using a form attached to the page. The grassroots movement uses digital mediums to organise dynamically, connoting the horizontal and non-hierarchical structure of SLT.

Nevertheless, the French government has stretched the definition to manufacture a dissolution decree. On the 21st of June, at the end of the Council of Ministers, government spokesperson Olivier Véran declared "that this collective corresponds to the type of groups that can be dissolved because it is considered constituted".

Earlier this year, in March, the group's highest-profile protest was reported to have more than 25,000 attendees, demonstrating against the construction of a dam in Sainte-Soline in western France. Though, Emmanuelle Dubee, the region's prefect, said only 6,000 protesters had joined the march.

The demonstration defied a regional ban – put in place as of October 2022 – when similar protests had taken place in the area. The attendees were met by some 3,200 police officers and 10 helicopters before violent clashes ensued, leaving hundreds injured and two in comas.

At the time, the French Interior Ministry accused the movement of "inciting and participating in sabotage and material destruction." Darmanin called the activists "eco-terrorists" and had threatened to disband the group.

The police and protesters have continued to provoke violence. Last weekend, a dozen people were injured in clashes over the construction of the Lyon-Turin railway tunnel – a region which had banned protests on highways. In June, the SLT demonstrated against sand mines; in May, they marched against a motorway interchange near Rouen that would destroy a forest; in April, they protested a new highway between Castres and Toulouse that would damage farmland.

The French Government continues to ban protests in public spaces near the construction sites of contentious development projects, which the activist group describes as "an intensification of repressive practices". Despite this prohibition, Les Soulèvements de la Terre continues to protest.

The arrests by the French government will embolden protesters, as the politically charged and undemocratic arrests of SLT members – and the subsequent decree of dissolution - continue to spark outrage.

France has been in turmoil since French President Emmanuel Macron opted to invoke Article 49.3 of the constitution to pass pension reforms. Article 49.3 – which allows the government to bypass parliament – undemocratically imposed Macron's reforms upon the French populous, leading to months of protest and rioting.

On the 6th of July, protesters briefly stormed Paris' 2024 Olympics headquarters as some 281,000 people demonstrated across France. Nevertheless, the turnout was far lower than the Labour Day, when more than 800,000 marched and 108 police were injured.

The efforts of Les Soulèvements de la Terre are part of a popular fight against Macron's government. The dissolution decree only continues to give protesters a reason to fight.

As of late, the political repercussions are coming to bear, seen in Macron losing his majority in the National Assembly during legislative elections on the 19th of June. Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire declared the result a "democratic shock" and stated that a lack of cooperation "would block our capacity to reform and protect the French."

However, the reforms of Macron's Renaissance party have been deeply unpopular and have led directly to violence. Renaissance has lost its majority in parliament, and Macron's approval rating has dropped below 30% for the second time in his presidential career.

It is time for Macron to step aside, as is the will of the French people.

Image: AFP/Sebastien Salom-Gomis

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