Image 20151117 4973 g7oto2.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

The state of emergency could thwart public demonstrations at the Paris climate talks

There will likely be increased concerns around climate protests in Paris, such as this one in London in 2014. AAP/Dave Evans

The state of emergency could thwart public demonstrations at the Paris climate talks

What impact will the attacks have on the Paris Climate Change Conference scheduled to begin in 12 days? While already complicated, the talks will now take place within a state of emergency that is threatening to limit public participation.

Events in Paris continue to unfold at a dizzying pace. But in the coming days we will learn a lot by paying attention to how parties use (and abuse) the language of freedom and liberty.

American philosopher Judith Butler underlined this point in a note from Paris written the night after the attacks:

“One version of liberty is attacked by the enemy, another version is restricted by the state. The state defends the version of liberty attacked as the very heart of France, and yet suspends freedom of assembly ("the right to demonstrate”) in the midst of its mourning and prepares for an even more thorough militarization of the police.“

State of emergency

On the night of the attacks President François Hollande declared a state of emergency. The legal basis for this declaration derives from Article 16 of the French Constitution (1958) and Law Number 55-385 (1955).

Hollande’s announcement was only the second time since World War II that a President has exercised this power on French soil. The last occasion was in November 2005 when riots broke out in response to the deaths of two teenage immigrants, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré. On that occasion, the emergency lasted until January 4 2006.

The current state of emergency took effect after midnight on November 14 and is set to expire after 12 days. However, it is likely that Hollande will successfully extend the emergency period for three months and gain broader security powers.

What does this mean for public participation?

The state of emergency will have a profound impact on individuals inside of France. Law 55-385 covers everything from school excursions to food markets. If necessary, the government may also ”control the press“ by restricting information communicated in print or communicated by other means.

The penalty for violating these measures includes imprisonment for a term up to two months, a €3,750 fine, or both.

While noting the broad scope of emergency powers, I will focus on those aspects that are directly relevant to public participation during the climate conference.

Travel: The climate conference is expected to draw approximately 10,000 government representatives, 7,000 official observers and 3,000 journalists. Past negotiations have also attracted thousands of people from civil society who come to campaign for climate action. The attacks will likely put many people off attending – particularly those travelling with children or who are from war-torn regions.

Moreover, increases in travel security and requirements to provide papers and photo ID will disproportionately impact civil society who are organising their own travel, and people from the developing world where such documents may take a long time to obtain.

Public gatherings: Public gatherings and demonstrations in Paris and suburbs have been banned (see text). While this has been ignored during the days of mourning we can expect additional military personnel to carry out enforcement during the negotiations.

Significantly, this ban has thrown into doubt a massive rally planned by climate activists for November 29. Organisers will meet on Monday to decide upon a course of action but groups such as Coalition Climat 21 have already announced their intention to go ahead with the events:

"While taking into account the exceptional circumstances, we believe that COP21 can not take place without the participation or without the mobilizations of civil society in France. Thus, we will implement all our efforts to hold all the mobilizations currently planned. In consultation with the authorities, we will continue to ensure the security of all participants is guaranteed.”

Side Events: While the details are unclear, “side events” to the conference will probably be cancelled. Last night, the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls stated:

“We are in the process of looking at that but everything which was outside of the COP (climate talks), a whole series of concerts, of rather festive events, will be without a doubt cancelled.”

The official program contains over 200 events on issues such as climate finance, ethics, mitigation strategies and human rights. While nobody doubts the challenge of securing locations around Paris, cancelling side events would remove one of the few avenues civil society has for expressing themselves, networking, and influencing negotiators.

Inequities may also emerge if events with more resources or greater access to power are allowed to proceed while community events are cancelled. For example, organisers of business and technology summit that is to be held in the Stade de France football stadium have stated that their event will go ahead as planned but with “a tightening of event security.”

The cost of security

In September, President Hollande argued that if the conference failed to reach ambitious agreement, “it will be too late for the world.” The conference now finds itself enmeshed in a state of emergency that restricts, if not removes, the already limited avenues for public participation.

Earlier this week in the Conversation Nick Rowley suggest that the conference “might just provide some positive and enduring light.” I hope he is right but I think the opposite is more likely. Namely that suspending civil liberties will snuff out the voice of civil society and reduce the chances for a bold climate agreement.

Found this article useful? A tax-deductible gift of $30/month helps deliver knowledge-based, ethical journalism.