French Court upholds civil disobedience as an alternative to the right to public participation
The French Criminal Court in Lyon, on September 16, 2019, excused civil disobedience as an appropriate way to address the government when the government is not taking sufficient action in a vital area such as climate change. Jugement Correctionnel, Cour d’Appel de Lyon, No. 19168000015 (16 Sept 2019). The decision came after a group of climate change activists invaded the municipal council of Lyon, took down President Macron’s portrait, and kept it to use in a public demonstration during the 2019 G7 Summit.
The accused activists are members of the “Association non-violente COP21,” a non-violent group advocating for the enforcement of France’s obligations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and subsequent agreements. Following their actions, police investigations identified two members of “Association non-violente COP21”and charged them with “theft in association.”
During the trial, the accused presented themselves as ordinary activists from an unspecified group with the sole objective of “to symbolically steal the President’s portrait as a message demanding concrete action for the climate, not anyone’s resignation.” Defendants called in Cecile Duflot, a former Minister and ecologist to testify. During her testimony, she asserted that lack of political will is responsible for France’s failure to comply with requirements of the 2015 Paris Accord addressing climate change. She further submitted that in March 2019, many associations filed a complaint with the State Council but the complaint failed to provide a favorable remedy. Unfortunately, only the President has the mandate to order compulsory measures relating to such emergency. Similarly, an expert in global ecology emphasized the need for rapid changes in society if global warming will be maintained below 20 C as required in the Paris Accord.
The Court noted that the defendants argued that the use of “legal channels and warnings of scientists” are insufficient to stir policy change.  The defendants asked for an acquittal recognizing the necessity of their actions in the face of grave and imminent danger. The Court, therefore, held that non-violent civil disobedience is an effective strategy to educate populations with a view to policy change. In addition to other arguments, the defense team made oral and written arguments that “a state of necessity legitimizes a proportionate criminal act intended to avert serious and impending danger.” The prosecution rejected this argument on grounds that there “existed no relationship between the act committed and a legitimately defended cause.” In reaction, the defense, argued that “short of alternative strategies, defendants resorted to confront state authorities through such measured action.”
In disagreeing with the prosecution, the Court reasoned that theft only materializes after putting together some key ingredients. One of these ingredients according to the Court is the economic consequences of the act. The Court, noted that here, the Council of Lyon did bring a civil claim seeking damages and financial loss, implying defendants’ act did not cause economic loss. The Court then held that by only removing an object of symbolic value from the Council as an alternative form of communication, defendants did not commit theft.
The Court also considered the defendants’ decision to avoid all forms of violent resistance, their strategic planning, and preparation of their operations taking into consideration the timing and the possible effects of media reporting. Additionally, the Court recognized the defendant’s conscious decision to keep the President’s portrait and use in a future event as a carefully calculated move void of violence.
Besides the criminal aspects of the case, the Court reaffirmed the damaging role climate change is playing on humanity’s future. These court specifically cited natural cataclysms, the modification of flora and fauna without adequate time for natural adaptation, violent conflicts, and the inability of poor countries to handle the negative effects of climate change. Concerning the French Government’s international and national commitments regarding climate change, the Court upheld defendants’ argument that France failed to respect these commitments. Consequently, the Court reasoned that “in a democratic state, when the government fails to respect its obligations, especially those considered minimal in a critical sector, citizens must not be restrained to universal suffrage expressed only during elections, but must invent alternative forms of participation as part of a critical duty of care.”
Following this reasoning, the Court further held that civil disobedience is an alternative for public participation in as much as “organizations and associations convey their messages to the government and strive to prevent a sudden influx of people with uncertain intentions capable of disturbing public order.” In applying this principle in the case under consideration, the Court acquitted the accused on two grounds. First, the Court held that “though the defendants did not declare their gathering to state authorities, their brief invasion of the municipal building destined to citizen administration and taking it hostage, without violence or concealed intentions, they remained peaceful and thereby conveyed an expressly peaceful demonstration unlikely to disturb public order.” The Court equally held that when citizens are deeply invested in a particular cause that serves the general good, , remain dedicated to that cause, and avoid accompanying their advocacy with reprehensible acts, such advocacy must be interpreted as the necessary substitute for impracticable dialogue between the President and the people. In conclusion, by agreeing with defendants that civil disobedience is an alternative method of public participation, the court adopts “necessity defense” as an effective strategy in climate change advocacy to avert the impending dangers of climate change.
 Unofficial translation. Original: “de décrocher symboliquement le portrait du président de la République pour réclamer de l’État non de démissions de personnes mais de l’action concrète en faveur du climat.” Jugement Correctionnel, page 5.
 Unofficial translation. Original: “. . . l'usage de voies légales et les avertissements des scientifiques ne sont pas des bras de levier suffisants . . . .” Jugement Correctionnel, page 6.
 Unofficial translation. Original: “un acte delictueux proportionné proportionne a l'eloignement d'un danger grave et imminent,”page 6.
 Unofficial translation. Original: “[F]ace au défaut de repect par l’État d’objectifs pouvant être perçus comme minimaux dans un domaine vital, le mode d’expression des citoyens en pays démocratique ne peut se réduire aux suffrages expreimés lors de échéances électorales mais doit inventer d’autres formes de participation dans le cadre d’un devoir de vigilance critique[.]” Jugement Correctionnel, page 7.
 Unofficial translation. Original: “des messages à l’adresse du gouvernement peuvent ainsi être diffusés au moyen de rassemblements dont les organisateurs et les autorités s’efforcent de limiter le trouble à l’ordre public que pourrait provoquer une affluence soudaine de personnes aux intentions immédiates incertaines.” Jugement Correctionnel, page 7.
 Unofficial translation. Original: “[même non-declarée preablement en préfecture, investissant pendant quelques minutes un bâtiment affecté à l'administration des citoyens et ses abords, sans bousculade ni dissimulation sur son mobile ou ses déplacements, revêt un caractère manifestement pacifique de nature à constituer un trouble à l'ordre public très modéré,” page 7.