Detail of Artist Paolo Cirio's installation Capture, featuring headshots of French police officers (courtesy the artist)

A proposed law in France, which would ban journalists from publishing photographs or footage of police officers, provoked mass protests across the country this weekend.

Tens of thousands of citizens poured onto the street of Paris and other major French cities to protest police brutality, arguing that the security bill is designed to provide impunity to violent officers. The outcry was also stoked by recent footage of French police officers battering and tear-gassing a Black citizen and the brutal police evacuation of a migrant camp in a Paris plaza last week. Clashes between police and protesters across the country resulted in 81 arrests and 98 injured officers, according to Euronews.

The bill, backed by President Emmanuel Macron, would criminalize publishing images of police officers with the intent to harm their “physical or psychological integrity.” Offenders would face a maximum penalty of up to one year in prison and a €45,000 fine (~$54,000) under Article 24 of the bill.

But following the public outcry, the French government released a conciliatory statement yesterday, promising to propose a “complete new rewrite” of the controversial security bill.

Installation view of Paolo Cirio’s cancelled project Capture (courtesy the artist)

The contentious bill follows a lesser-known incident in which the French Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, threatened an artist with legal measures over Twitter for exposing the identity of police officers in an art project.

“The men and women who risk their lives to protect us have been put in the pillory,” the minister wrote in a tweet (translated from French), directly addressing the Italian hacker-artist Paolo Cirio. Darmanin demanded “the cancellation of the ‘exhibition’ and the removal of the photos from its website” and threatened that failure to do so will result in “taking the matter to the relevant courts.”

In October, Cirio was set to unveil a large-scale installation titled Capture as part of the group exhibition Panorama 22 at Le Fresnoy (the National Studio for Contemporary Arts) in the city of Tourcoing. The wall installation was to feature 150 profiles of French police officers. But on October 2, a day after Darmanin’s tweet condemning the artwork, the gallery canceled Cirio’s participation in the exhibition and covered up his installation.

Cirio, who in the past hacked Google and the Cayman Islands’s government registry, has collected 1,000 public photos of police officers taken during protests in France and processed them with facial recognition software to document over 4,000 faces of officers who now can be identified by name. The artist says that his project mimics the tools used by the American company Clearview AI, which provides facial profiling services to law enforcement agencies around the world by using images that are publicly available online.

On Twitter, the French police union praised the minister for intervening in the exhibition, thanking him for his “firmness in defending police officers and their families.” The statement was followed by the hashtag #BlueLivesMatter in English.

Le Fresnoy’s director, filmmaker Alain Fleischer, said in a statement that the gallery was “profoundly shocked” by Cirio’s methods, adding that “the artist has violated terms to which he had agreed to not do anything of the sort.”

In an email to Hyperallergic, Cirio dismissed Fleischer’s claims, saying that Le Fresnoy “was well aware of all the elements of the project.” 

Staff at Le Fresnoy covering up Cirio’s installation ahead of the opening of an exhibition in October (courtesy of Paolo Cirio)

In September, Cirio posted headshots of French police officers throughout the streets of Paris and produced a video about the dangers of facial recognition tools to civic liberties when in the hands of law enforcement.

In addition, the artist launched an online petition that calls on the European Union to permanently ban the use of facial recognition for the identification and profiling of activists and civilians. The petition has been signed by nearly 47,000 people to date.

“Facial Recognition is a particularly invasive technology,” the petition reads. “It’s not only about the surveillance of activists, suspects, and minorities, but it is an invasion of privacy for everyone.”

Cirio posting headshots of French police officers in the streets of Paris in September of 2020
A portrait of a French police officer taken by Cirio during a protest

On October 6, Cirion sent an open letter to the French Minister of Culture, Roselyne Bachelot, in which he called Darmanin’s threats against him “a pure act of censorship forced directly by the French government.”

“This censorship puts in perils the very principles of democracy in which art as free expression must exist to debate, comment, and condemn governments and their institutions, including the police’s uncivil behaviors,” the artist added.

Other participating artists in the exhibition and students at Le Fresnoy sided with Cirio in another an open letter decrying the minister’s “censorship and methods of intimidation.”

“We rise up against the meddling of Mr. Darmanin, who is exerting an unacceptable and totally inappropriate pressure on a cultural institution by means of the intermediary of social media (Twitter),” the open letter, signed by 56 artists and students, asserted. “Such methods cause concern and call into focus the authoritarian penchant of a member of government who refuses any public debate when a subject embarrasses him, in this case, the spread of facial recognition.”

A protest in Paris on November 28, 2020 against a proposed security bill which would ban filming or photographing police officers (Jeanne Menjoulet/Flickr)
Protesters in Paris carrying a sign that reads “Bludgeoned Democracy” on November 28, 2020 (Jeanne Menjoulet/Flickr)

If passed, the newly proposed law would immediately expose Cirio to prosecution, especially after he drew the ire of a leading cabinet member and law enforcement officials.

“This proposed law makes me particularly vulnerable legally and the violent threats I have received could be a little too personal and close with this escalation of tension,” the artist told Hyperallergic.

When asked if his project was a possible catalyst to the proposed law, Cirio said: “I don’t want to think this project made the proposal for the Article 24 more urgent for the French authorities, but surely my work made them very nervous and they thought of it when drafting this new law.”

Cirio has temporarily shelved his project but he said he might continue it in other countries. “I’ll need to always be careful,” he said.

“I didn’t make this art to strictly identify police officers; it’s rather to provoke, reflect, reveal, and simulate realities,” Cirio expounded. “Art provocations are successful when they generate public shock, critical reactions, and strong responses to raise awareness and warn about danger.”

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...