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Security climate mutes environmental activists’ voice in Paris

Activists in Paris, prevented from marching by the security situation, have resorted to putting shoes on the ground. Reuters/Eric Gaillard

It’s hard not to feel for France’s climate activists on the eve of the Paris climate talks. The Government’s decision to prevent large-scale climate marches and protests planned for the weekend preceding the talks, a response to terror attacks in Paris, has muted their voice.

This may be consequential for the outcome of Paris talks. At different points in the history of international climate negotiations, protests on the ground have kept pressure on leaders to secure agreement

Obviously, this particularly applies to the host city. And the media has understandably focused on the cancellation of large-scale events there, as well as news of police placing protesters under house arrest. But in the rest of France, too, protests have been prohibited. This has deprived local climate activists of the capacity to mobilize their local publics around the largest event in the history of climate politics ever held in the country.

Beyond Paris

On study leave this semester, I decided to relocate from Brisbane to Lyon – from Australia’s third-largest city to France’s equivalent – ahead of attending the climate talks in Paris.

After following climate gatherings in Australia, including in my home city, I found myself walking through the streets of Lyon with my family.

In the centre of town I passed the people of Le Coalition Climat 21 Rhone, politely handing out information to passers-by around the original site of proposed climate protests in Place Bellacour.

The Place itself, a stunning public space and one of the largest public squares in Europe, was something of a surreal scene. Amid tourist groups and locals passing through while running Saturday errands, climate protesters and security personnel quietly milled around each other.

Those climate activists not dispersing posters and information on the fringes were gathered in small numbers in the centre of the square. Police and security personnel were nearby, and seemed to be hoping they would not be compelled to respond to a sudden upsurge in activity from the activists. They weren’t.

Don’t forget climate change

One protester I spoke to urged us not to forget about the climate talks and the imperative for climate action. The message was that this was a real danger in the context of limits to climate protests, and even in the shadow of the Paris terror attacks.

For climate activists throughout France, these are difficult times. There is disappointment that an event they were building for and mobilizing around has coincided with a “bad time” for public action. There is also well-founded frustration that the response to terror attacks has undermined public protests, one of the key distinguishing features of a robust democracy. This trade-off between security and liberty, with the perverse sense of protecting liberty and freedom by minimising it, is familiar to students of security and terrorism.

But that’s little comfort to France’s climate activists, who are desperate that we not forget the importance of climate action in the shadow of terrorist attacks. They’ve got a point.

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