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Record abstentions from ruling LREM party in vote on 'anti-rioters' bill

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rench Interior Minister Christophe Castaner during question time at the National Assembly last month REUTERS/Charles Platiau

French MPs have approved an anti-rioting bill giving security forces the power to ban suspected hooligans from demonstrating. But the controversial bid to crack down on violence that has marred months of Yellow Vest protests has shown signs of division within President Emmanuel Macron's party.


Opponents say the bill, approved by the lower house of parliament by 387 votes to 87, contravenes the constitutional right to demonstrate.

Under its most contentious provision, government officials would be able to ban people suspected of being hooligans from taking part in demonstrations -- without oversight from a judge.

Inspired by legislation used to crack down on football hooligans, the new law calls for a six-month prison sentence and a 7,500 euro ($8,500) fine for violators.

The legislation, if passed by the upper house and approved by the constitutional council, would also allow fines of 15,000 euros ($17,000) and a one-year prison term for demonstrators covering or masking their faces to escape identification.

"It's a common sense law. But it may not prevent those intent on being violent while protesting," Philippe Lhoste, a spokesperson for the Red Scarves movement that is calling for protestors to refrain from violence.

The law would also hand French police greater powers to search would-be demonstrators for weapons.

The bill's approval follows 12 weeks of protests by anti-government demonstrators known as the Yellow Vests because of their distinctive florescent jackets.

The protests began in November against rising fuel taxes, but quickly spiralled into a wider movement in opposition to President Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker, accused by critics of being out of touch with ordinary people.

Ruling party abstentions

Unusually, some 50 MPs from Macron's own party, the Republic on the Move, abstained from voting in favour of the legislation on Tuesday in a sign of divisions within the group.

Banning people from demonstrating without judicial oversight "could be wrongly used in the future by an ill-intentioned regime, from the extreme right for example," LREM MP Matthieu Orphelin warned ahead of the vote.

"The main thing is that there were no votes against," Gilles Le Gendre, who heads their parliamentary group, told reporters after the vote on Tuesday.

In several cities, especially Paris, weekly Saturday protests by Yellow Vests have descended into violence.

Rioters in the capital torched cars and looted shops in early December, and also ransacked the Arc de Triomphe monument.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner on Monday denied that the bill under discussion was "freedom-killing", arguing that it was needed in response to "a handful of hooligans who threaten our right to demonstrate".

The bill is expected to return to the upper house of parliament on12 March.

France adopted a similar, though much tougher, law in 1970, two years after the widespread civil unrest of May 1968.

Socialist President Francois Mitterrand scrapped that law, which allowed prison sentences of one to five years for violent demonstrators, a few months after taking office in 1981.