French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has announced that the country will reinstate border controls before and during the COP 21 climate change conference, which will be held in Paris from November 30 to December 11. The decision promises to play out over the next few weeks among human rights and environmental activists, who say the government's claims of national security threats are really an attempt to limit demonstrations.
France is part of the Schengen Area, a "borderless" zone made up of 26 EU states that have eliminated passport and immigration controls along their joint borders. But those countries still have the option of reinstating the controls "in case of a serious threat to public order or homeland security."
In an interview with French television channel BFM TV, Cazeneuve said the government would close its border "for one month" in response to "a context of terrorist threats and risk of disturbances to public order, which could tarnish this international event."
Organizers expect some 40,000 people to attend COP 21, which is the 21st Conference of the Parties to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Some 80 heads of state and more than 100 international delegations will be present in the French capital for the event, creating a severe logistical challenge for the country's security services.
Civil society organizations have criticized the government's move, which they say will prevent environmental activists from traveling to Paris to take part in protests and events organized around the conference.
"We are questioning the government's sincerity when it says it wants to mobilize large swathes of society," said Juliette Rousseau, a spokeswoman for Coalition Climat 21 — an umbrella group made up of 130 civil society organizations defending human rights and the environment. Rousseau said she was concerned the authorities were confusing "street demonstrations with threats to national security."
'We fear that, in reinstating border controls, the government will stop tens of thousands of Europeans from taking part in civilian protests.'
Article 24 of the Schengen Agreement specifies that countries that elect to reinstate border controls must inform the European Commission and explain their reason for suspending the open-border policy.
Several member states — including Hungary and Slovenia — have closed off their borders in recent weeks in an attempt to stem an unprecedented flow of migrants.
Since 2011, the majority of temporary reinstatements of border controls have occurred in the context of international events. In November 2012, for instance, France closed its borders for the G20 summit in Cannes.
Poland temporarily reversed the Schengen Agreement in 2013 when it hosted the UN's 19th climate change conference in Warsaw.
Two classified documents describing potential security threats during COP 21 have already been leaked to the French media. In September, French radio station France Info published an internal police memo revealing that the regions would send police reinforcements to Paris ahead of the conference, as part of a plan to contain "any major demonstrations, including protests." In the memo, police officers were asked to not plan holidays or time off during the two-week event.
And according to a classified document obtained by French radio RTL, the "disturbances" described by Cazeneuve could be "a threat from abroad, potentially involving foreign militants." The document also highlights the threat of rallies by left-wing protesters, who are expected to set up camps near the conference site.
Both documents reference possible disruptions by black blocs — a term used to describe a particularly violent protest tactic, often seen during major anti-globalization protests. Protesters typically wear all-black clothing and cover their faces to avoid being identified.
The latest black bloc protest in France dates back to 2014, when ultra-left activists rioted against a proposal to build a new airport near the northwestern city of Nantes. Black bloc activists were also in the streets of Strasbourg in 2009 when a violent protest during a NATO summit resulted in several buildings being set on fire.
"We fear that, in reinstating border controls, the government will stop tens of thousands of Europeans from taking part in civilian protests alongside the official summit," said Rousseau.
"Our partners in the South, and particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa and in the Maghreb, are also finding it very difficult to obtain visas to be in Paris for COP 21," the activist told VICE News.
Attac France — the French arm of the international social and environmental justice movement — has criticized the French government for denying a travel visa to the president of Attac Togo. "We know how hard it is for them to get visas, so that's why we sent the president of Attac Togo a letter, including the dates of his travel and [stipulating] that we would cover the financial costs of his trip, to show the government that we know him," Attac spokesman Maxime Combes said.
"He was told by the embassy that his request was unjustified, even though he was coming to take part in the debates and give talks," said Combes, adding that it was unacceptable for "some populations, particularly those affected by climate change, to have to contend with visa issues."
When contacted Friday by VICE News, France's embassy in Togo was unable to comment in time for publication.
Cazeneuve said on Friday that "peaceful anti-globalization activists" would be granted "simplified" visa procedures.
The UN said that climate pledges made by countries ahead of COP 21 remained insufficient to prevent a two-degree Celsius rise in global temperatures — the target of the upcoming conference.
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