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FRANCE: Macron accused of authoritarianism after threat to cut off social media

EMMANUEL Macron is facing a backlash after threatening to cut off social media networks as a means of stopping the spread of violence during periods of unrest.

Élysée officials and government ministers responded on Wednesday by insisting the president was not threatening a “general blackout” but instead the “occasional and temporary” suspension of platforms.

The president’s comments came as ministers blamed young people using social media such as Snapchat and TikTok for organising and encouraging rioting and violence after the shooting dead of a teenager during a police traffic stop in a Paris suburb last week.

“We need to think about how young people use social networks, in the family, at school, the interdictions there should be … and when things get out of hand we may have to regulate them or cut them off,” Macron told a meeting of more than 250 mayors, whose municipalities were hit by the violence, on Tuesday.

“Above all, we shouldn’t do this in the heat of the moment and I’m pleased we didn’t have to. But I think it’s a real debate that we need to have in the cold light of day,” Macron told the mayors in a video obtained by BFM television.

Critics said considering such measures would put France alongside authoritarian countries such as China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.

Olivier Faure, the leader of the Socialist party, tweeted: “The country of the rights of man and citizens cannot align itself with those great democracies of China, Russia and Iran.”

Olivier Marleix, from the centre-right Les Républicains, added: “Cut social media? Like China, Iran, North Korea? Even if it’s a provocation to distract attention, it’s in very bad taste.”

Fatima Ouassak, co-founder of the Front de Mères (Mother’s Front) collective representing parents in the working-class banlieues, said the issue was a distraction.

“It’s a diversion tactic. Instead of debating the issue of police violence … we are diverting to the responsibility of the social media networks and parents,” Ouassak told BFM television. “It’s secondary and about the authorities avoiding their responsibility.”

An Elysée source insisted Macron had “at no moment said he envisaged cutting the network in the sense of a general blackout”. The president had made it clear he wanted a “calm and considered” debate about the role of social media on the recent unrest, the source said.

“The president thinks we should be reflecting about the use of the social media networks and what basis there could be for eventual bans or administrative measures.”

Speaking after a ministerial meeting on Wednesday, government spokesperson Olivier Véran said a cross-party committee to look at a modification of a law on cybersecurity currently going through parliament would be set up.

Véran said the government had made a “firm request” to social media platforms to take down materials encouraging violence as quickly as possible and remove the anonymity of those possibly breaking the law.

“A young person should know he cannot sit behind his screen and write, organise or do whatever he wants. Anonymity in terms of offences doesn’t exist. You have to understand this can have consequences and the consequences can lead to punishment,” Véran said.

Asked if it meant suspending social media, the Véran added: “It could be something like suspending a function, such as geolocalisation.”

The government has battled riots and looting since a police officer fatally shot 17-year-old Nahel M during a traffic stop on 27 June, rekindling longstanding accusations of systemic racism among France’s security forces.

A 38-year-old police officer has been officially put under investigation – the French equivalent of being charged – for voluntary manslaughter and is being held in custody.

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