French authorities have resorted to "overly broad laws to arrest and prosecute thousands of protesters who did not commit violent acts," Amnesty International says in a report.
Rights group Amnesty International has accused French authorities of using "vague laws" to conduct a "draconian crackdown" on anti-government protests and demonstrations against police brutality.
French authorities have resorted to "overly broad laws to arrest and prosecute thousands of protesters who did not commit violent acts," the group said in a report on Tuesday.
While it did not defend the actions of protesters who committed violence or arson, the rights group said many who were peaceful have been fined, arrested and prosecuted - some for merely bringing goggles to a protest.
The justice ministry told AFP it would comment only after reading the full 63-page report.
According to Amnesty, more than 40,000 people were convicted in France in 2018 and 2019 "on the basis of vague laws" for crimes including "contempt of public officials," "participation in a group with a view to committing violent acts" and "organising a protest without complying with notification requirements."
Between April and October 2019, 210 people were detained under a new ban on wearing face coverings to protests - which many do to protect themselves against police tear gas.
The offence comes with a fine of up to 15,000 euros ($17,400) and a jail term of up to a year. It resulted in 41 convictions last year.
"Participation in protest in France today carries the risk of exposure to tear gas, rubber bullets and other dangerous weapons; receiving a fine; spending a day or two in pre-charge detention; and facing criminal charges without having committed violent acts," according to the report.
"Thousands of peaceful protesters have been swept up in France's draconian crackdown on demonstrations," it added.
Since November 2018, France has been the scene of near-weekly anti-government demonstrations by so-called "yellow vest" protesters angry about perceived social inequality and a loss of spending power.
The protests have recently resumed, though on a smaller scale, after a hiatus during France's coronavirus lockdown.
France was also rocked by regular demonstrations in late 2019 and early 2020, during the country's longest consecutive public transport strike over proposed pension reforms, and this year saw additional protests against alleged police racism and brutality.
France's police watchdog has said it received almost 1,500 complaints against officers last year, of which roughly half were for alleged violence against civilians.
The Amnesty report said French authorities had also "weaponised criminal law," for example, with "disproportionate restrictions on public assemblies" in the context of social distancing measures to curb the coronavirus epidemic.
It cited three cases in which 85 people were fined for participating in small protests in May and June this year, despite wearing face masks and/or maintaining a safe physical distance from others.
"A legislative arsenal has been deployed to arrest and prosecute protesters arbitrarily and to unduly restrict their right to freedom of peaceful assembly," the report said.
"Violence during demonstrations is a legitimate concern, but there is a political desire to make examples of people and deter others from taking to the streets," Marco Perolini, a French researcher at Amnesty International, told AFP.
Amnesty also called for the ban on face coverings at protests to be "urgently reviewed" in the context of masks' role in combating the spread of coronavirus cases.