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After the health crisis, the necessary counter-power of the associations

Faced with the multiple obstacles to associative work, it is urgent to listen to critical citizen expertise in the defense of rights and the protection of individual and collective freedoms.

In early April, the association Utopia56 made public a list of 37 fines levied against its volunteers between 19 March and 8 April, while they were distributing equipment and food to exiles in Calais. The document is accompanied by a video in which a policeman clearly expresses his intention to « exhaust » the activists by increasing the number of checks and fines. On May 1st, the Popular Solidarity Brigades of Montreuil organised a free distribution of fruit and vegetables. Their solidarity action was interrupted by about thirty policemen, with this unprecedented justification : « protest action », forbidden during the confinement, and the participants were fined.

Obstacles to the work of associations are not a new phenomenon. One recalls the cutting of subsidies from the Ministry of Justice to Genepi, which intervenes in prisons, the multiplication of legal proceedings against members of the Adama Committee, the colossal means deployed by the police and the justice system to prevent any challenge to the installation of the nuclear waste burial center in Bure.

Anti-racist associations, particularly those defending the rights of Muslims, were also publicly attacked and disqualified. Fines, contempt or defamation suits, arbitrary cuts in subsidies, denial of access to public premises, damage to reputation, ostracisation and banishment from partnership spaces... For nearly a year now, the Observatory of Associative Freedoms, made up of associations and researchers, has been documenting dozens of cases of public authorities obstructing the actions or words of associations. Its first report, to be published in the autumn, analyses 100 cases of repression and suggests ways to get out of the democratic impasse in which we find ourselves : a mistrust of institutions towards citizens’ counter-powers.

Culture of mistrust
These attacks contribute to making activist engagement more costly, discouraging volunteer investment, and « exhausting » goodwill. They create a culture of mistrust and disengagement : when criticizing power can lead to losing funding or even jobs, one thinks twice. Self-censorship can be so integrated that it is no longer conscious.

Yet more than ever we need the counter-powers of associations. Rather than seeing them as adversaries, we urgently need to develop a different conception of power, one that is more attentive to grassroots actors and critical citizen expertise. In times of crisis (health, economic, social, ecological) that are likely to multiply in the years to come, public authorities are given immense responsibility and power. The risk of error or abuse of power linked to unilateral decisions is increased. And the role of associations active in the defense of rights is decisive in limiting this risk and protecting individual and collective freedoms.

Collective citizenship
The last few months have proven it. The vigilance of the Quadrature du Net and the Human Rights League has made it possible to put an end to the abusive use of drones in Paris. A patients’ association such as Renaloo requested and obtained from the Ministry of Solidarity and Health that the patients’ relatives be allowed to stop their professional activity in order to limit the risk of intra-family contamination. In working-class neighborhoods, such as in Angers, via the Pas Sans Nous coordination, associations have enabled citizens to lodge legal appeals after receiving fines from the Post Office for failing to produce a discharge certificate without even being checked. Noting the fines and abusive measures affecting cyclists, the Federation of Bicycle Users (FUB) obtained that the State recognizes the freedom to move around by bicycle during the confinement.

These cases demonstrate the importance of collective citizenship in times of crisis. Rather than repressing the critical role of associative actors, it must be recognized, encouraged and supported without stifling it. The first measure to be taken would consist, like whistleblowers and union delegates, in recognizing the role of associations in questioning and defending rights and allowing them to benefit from reinforced protection in the event of abusive retaliation measures. The Observatory’s work has led to the formulation of eleven other proposals that outline a decisive institutional and democratic transformation.

Critical actors and social movements are a common good, a watchdog against the authoritarian temptation that any crisis gives rise to and the urgency to respond to it. In the face of the storms that lie ahead, more modest public authorities that listen to a plurality of opinions are the condition for a more resilient society.

First signatories :

Arnaud Schwartz, President of France Nature Environnement, Malik Salemkour, President of La Ligue des droits de l’homme, Sihem Zine, President of Action droit des Musulmans, Gilles Rouby, President of the Collectif des associations citoyennes, Mohamed Mechmache, President of Coordination Pas sans nous, Emmanuel Poilane, President of Crid, Adrien Roux, director of the Alliance citoyenne and the Alinsky Institute, Khedidja Mamou, president of APPUII, Jean-Luc Prévost, Fédération des Arts de la rue, Michel Rousseau, co-president of Tous Migrants, Léa Gauthier, co-president of VoxPublic, Elise Van Beneden, president of Anticor, Manon Laurent, ReAct, as well as the members of the scientific council of the Observatoire des libertés associatives : Marie-Hélène Bacqué, Romain Badouard, Hélène Balazard, Julia Cagé, Marion Carrel, Vanessa Codaccioni, Benjamin Ferron, Guillaume Gourgues, Stéphanie Hennette-Vauchez, Jean-Louis Laville, Marwan Mohammed, Julien Talpin, Karel Yon.

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