Emmanuel Macron has been compared to Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s authoritarian leader, after proposing shutting down social media to curb riots.
The French president floated the idea of cutting off platforms such as Snapchat and TikTok during outbreaks of major unrest such as the protests that have gripped France over the past week following the police killing of a teenager.
“We have to think about the social networks, about the bans we’ll have to put in place. When things get out of control, we might need to be able to regulate or cut them off,” Mr Macron told a meeting of more than 300 mayors on Tuesday at the Elysee Palace.
Mr Macron’s government has singled out social media platforms for fuelling the riots that have followed the police shooting of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk on June 27, saying they were used to organise and encourage violence and looting.
But political opponents were quick to condemn his proposal for social media blackouts as undemocratic.
“Cut social media? Like China, Iran, North Korea? Even if it is a provocation to divert attention, it is in very bad taste,” said MP Olivier Marleix, of the centre-right Republican party.
Olivier Faure, the leader of the Socialist party, also spoke out against the potential move, saying: “The country of human rights and citizens cannot align itself with the great democracies of China, Russia and Iran.
Mathilde Panot, a far-Left MP, went a step further, saying “OK Kim Jung-un” in a Twitter post highlighting Mr Macron’s remarks.
Objections were even raised from within the president’s parliamentary camp, with Eric Bothorel, an MP, saying that cutting off social networks would mean “giving up on the idea that democracy is stronger than the tools turned against it”.
Responding to the backlash, government officials appeared to backtrack on Mr Macron’s remarks on Wednesday. The office of Jean-Noel Barrot, the digital transition minister, told the France Inter radio station that cutting off social networks was “not on the table”.
Clarifying Mr Macron’s position, Olivier Veran, a government spokesman, said the president had not proposed a “generalised blackout” of platforms, but rather a suspension of features such as geolocation tools, which help users meet in precise locations.
French law currently provides little framework for the partial banning of social networks’ features, but a new tech bill is currently being debated in parliament. Mr Veran said the bill could be altered in the wake of the riots.
As unrest raged over the weekend, Mr Macron called on platforms to delete sensitive content, appealing to the companies’ “spirit of responsibility”.
“Platforms and social networks play a considerable role in the movements of the last few days,” he said on Friday. “We have seen on several of them, Snapchat, TikTok, both the organisation of rallies taking place, but a form of mimicry of the violence.”