Young activists from the Identitarian movement were released on Dec. 16 by the Grenoble Court of Appeal after 2.5 years of judicial process and an extraordinarily harsh sentence in their initial court hering in August 2019. The right-wing activists’ lawyers called the decision taken by the court of appeal “a victory of law over a purely political decision” taken by the court of first instance.
In April 2018, some 80 to 100 young people from Génération Identitaire organized an action at the Col de l’Échelle mountain pass at the border with Italy in the Alps. Using helicopters and trucks and the label of “Defend Europe” — the same as the one used by European Identitarians for a ship sent to Libyan waters in 2017 to monitor incursions by other NGO ships and report them to the Libyan coast guard — the activists created a symbolic border control checkpoint to protest against the uncontrolled passage of illegal immigrants. Although Génération Identitaire’s “Defend Europe” mission in the Alps was peaceful and no case of violence was reported by law enforcement officers detached to the mountain pass at the time of the protest, the French mainstream media, which is mostly left-leaning and favorable to migrants, were very critical of the protest and labeled it “far-right” and even “Nazi” in some cases. Génération Identitaire’s action in the Alps was seen as a major success by the group, but then the court cases began by targeting the group with odd interpretations of laws. Only years later were the harsh fines and punishments thrown out in appeal.
At first, French prosecutors could not see anything illegal in the peaceful protest organized by Génération Identitaire at the Col de l’Échelle. But then the prosecutor of the city of Gap resorted to a law that forbids “exercising an activity under conditions that create confusion with a public function” to build a case against Génération Identitaire and its leaders who took part in the “Defend Europe” mission at the French-Italian border. Such a charge was quite surprising given that protesters all wore the “Defend Europe” logo and could hardly be mistaken with the French police or the Gendarmerie. Moreover, from the very beginning of its unfolding, the action was presented and publicized as a citizens’ protest. In August 2019, a court of first instance sentenced three young members of Génération Identitaire to six months in prison and fines of €2,000 each, while the organization itself was fined €75,000. Such severe treatment of right-wing activists by a court stands in sharp contrast with the usual benevolence of French judges, in particular towards left-wing violent activists or those who smuggle illegal immigrants to France, like in the case of left-wing activist Cédric Herrou who helped hundreds of illegal immigrants cross the border from Italy to France and was eventually discharged on the pretext he did so for humanitarian reasons. A different and far harsher form of treatment is usually reserved for right-wing activists, however, such as the case of Génération Identitaire’s harsh condemnation for a peaceful protest staged on the roof of a new mosque being built in Poitiers in 2012. The mosque in Poitiers was co-financed by Qatar, and according to its imam who is linked to an organization close to the Muslim Brotherhood, the mosque’s name — the Mosque of the Highway of the Martyrs — refers to the Battle of Poitiers in 732, when Frankish forces put an end to the Islamic invasion of Gaul. In that case too, several leaders of the patriotic Identitarian protest were faced with jail sentences and heavy fines in the court of first instance before being discharged on all counts by a court of appeal after years of judicial process.
In October 2018, 22 activists from Génération Identitaires were arrested after having staged a peaceful protest in Marseille at the headquarters of SOS Méditerranée, an NGO they accuse of collaborating with human traffickers to bring immigrants to Europe from the coast of Libya. Dozens of activists participated in the Alps action, which made international news and raised awareness about illegal immigration to Europe. After the Identitarians’ highly publicized action in the Alps, Facebook France, whose chief executive Laurent Solly is a former prefect and a former chief-of-staff in the Ministry of the Economy, closed all Facebook accounts owned by Génération Identitaire when he was asked to do so by the French government. Since then, Facebook France has also been enforcing a policy of systematically censoring posts and blocking accounts of media outlets where the protest of April 2018 in the Alps is presented positively and the judicial action against Génération Identitaire criticized. Although the Court of Appeal in Grenoble finally discharged Identitarian activists on all counts and recognized that the protest was peaceful and legal, the repression young right-wing activists have been experiencing for two and a half years for their protest raises real concerns about the independence of the judiciary in France, the autonomy of prosecutors and their ability not to act under the direct orders of the French minister of justice, and above all about the ability of French magistrate to act impartially regardless of their usually leftist political convictions. While in the EU, France is among the countries most supportive of the European Commission’s efforts to interfere in Polish reforms of the judiciary which have supposedly politicized the judicial system and are said to threaten the independence and impartiality of judges, it looks like it has a real problem of its own in this area. This is evidenced by a range of cases, such as the Polish government’s inability to clamp down on violent left-wing activists such as “Margot” who was set free by a court last summer just three weeks after his arrest , the kind of judicial repression experienced in France by right-wing political opponents of the like of Identitarians is hardly conceivable in Poland.