Freedom of movement suspended

Are Climate Advocates not Welcome in France for COP21?

Freedom of movement suspended

by Sophie Chapelle

The French government is set to reintroduce border controls for a month, over the period of the International Climate Conference in Paris. This exceptional measure is taken “where there is a serious threat to public policy or internal security”. It appears that civil society, which is planning on mass mobilisation for the event, is especially targeted, as a number of delegations from developing countries are having trouble getting visas.

As of 13 November, citizens and civil society organisations committed to climate justice will no longer be welcome in France. National border controls will be reintroduced for the international climate conference to be held in Paris in late November, early December, meaning that, for a month, even EU citizens will be unable to be move freely in and out of France. According to an official document from the French authorities, published by the Council of the European Union, France is planning a “reintroduction of controls at the internal borders with Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, the Swiss Confederation, Italy and Spain on the occasion of COP 21”. These exceptional measures will begin on 13 November, two weeks before the opening of the conference, and end on 13 December, two days after the event finishes, as illustrated by the document below: [1]

“Serious threat to public policy”

The French government is enforcing article 23 of the Schengen Borders Code which gives member states the right to reintroduce internal border controls for a maximum of thirty days “where there is a serious threat to public policy or internal security”. The last time France employed this measure was in 2012 for the G20 in Cannes. Poland also temporarily reintroduced border controls in 2013 for the 19th International Climate Conference held in Warsaw.

“Since the Borders Code came into force in 2006, each time border controls have been reintroduced, it has been for the purpose of preventing terrorism and crime, and for security purposes related to the hosting of international meetings or sports events,” according to Le Monde. Laurent Fabius, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Chair of COP 21, has just announced that at least 80 Heads of State and government officials will be present in Paris at the end of the year. What exactly is the French Ministry of Interior afraid of? “Violence,” a senior official of the French police force told the AEF news agency, from “black bloc protesters” and a marginal group of “‘zadistes’ – green activists – that could potentially merge with them”. We have contacted the French Ministry of Interior for this article, but officials have failed for the moment to provide answers to our questions.

Surge in number of visas refused

There is reason to believe that the main target of these exceptional measures is civil society and climate advocates. Coalition climat 21, which includes 130 civil society organisations, says that thousands of participants from the Global South have had trouble obtaining visas. Some applications have been refused, while others are extremely slow in being processed. “Embassies are requesting various documents including invitations from us and proof of the applicant’s ability to pay for transport, among other requests,” says Juliette Rousseau, spokesperson for the Coalition. “The chairman of Attac Togo’s visa application was refused today. Apparently his journey is unjustified! Yet he had an invitation from both the Coalition and from Attac France, specifying that we would cover all his travel-related costs,” says Jeanne Planche, from Attac.

Is attending COP 21 not a good enough reason for embassies to deliver a visa? “Mistakes do happen,” declared the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Basta! “But we are of course in favour of a large participation of civil society, beyond accredited participants.” A “special procedure” has been set up by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs for accredited participants, especially those requiring a visa to come to France [2]. However, according to diplomatic sources, a distinction is made between officials that hold a diplomatic passport and can go through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and all other requests that have to be processed by the Ministry of Interior. “We are just a letterbox,” states the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

(Extract of the notification of visa refusal. Translation: Your visa application has been examined by the Embassy of France in Togo: visa refused. The decision was made for the following reason(s): 2. The purpose and conditions of the envisaged journey are not justified.)

Another case in point is that of Mouhad Gasmi, figurehead for the fight against shale gas in Algeria, (see our interview with him, in French). On the 21st of October he went to lodge his visa application with the consulate of France in Algeria, armed with an invitation from Coalition climat 21. The consulate gave him an appointment for the 5th of January 2016 – one month after the end of COP21 [3]! “The government promised that the process for granting accreditations through our member organisations would be facilitated. But everything is being done to limit the number of people coming to Paris,” denounces Juliette Rousseau. “The government is choosing who they want to take part in the official summit.” Reinforcing border controls, both on the ground and at airports, is another way for them to achieve this.

“Open Paris to the world!”

Another issue at hand is that the French government and the City of Paris have not yet disclosed how they plan on accommodating the thousands of civil society participants coming to COP21. Coalition climat 21 has already received “more than 10,000 accommodation requests” from civil society representatives. “For the moment, we have been granted 1000 accommodation spaces by Plaine Commune [An urban authority just outside Paris]. We just need another 9,000!” says Juliette Rousseau. “We’ve had negative responses from some local authorities, telling us that public venues are already being used for the regional elections.” The first round of these elections will indeed take place on 6 December - for all the other days, the excuse does not seem very strong. . .

An open letter to the Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo, entitled “Open Paris to the world!”, calls on her to “urgently provide Coalition Climat 21 with accommodation solutions for representatives of civil society coming from all over the world”. In early September, François Hollande claimed that COP21’s success would “depend on the willingness of governments as well as on the power of peoples [and] movements” – a “power” that his government is set on keeping a tight rein on. With under a month before the conference begins, NGOS and civil society organisations are unconvinced of the French government’s claim that it is willing to include them, in all their diversity, in the COP process.


Photo : CC Paolo Cuttitta

To see this article in French


[1Click here to download the full document with the list of authorised border crossing points.

[2More detail on this special procedure here (published on-line after this article was fist released in French).

[3After becoming aware, thanks to this article, of these two cases of visa refusal (among many others), the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs informed us on 30 October that “both cases are about to be resolved”.