Social Justice

What the UK’s Arrest of a French Publisher Means for Public Intellectuals the World Over

The detention of Ernest Moret raises urgent questions about British authorities’ targeting public intellectuals at the request of other nations.
The arrest comes at a time in which both Macron’s and Rishi Sunak’s governments have been brutally cracking down on the right to protest, targeting social and environmental activists with a slew of draconian laws and violent police repression.
The arrest comes at a time in which both Macron’s and Rishi Sunak’s governments have been brutally cracking down on the right to protest, targeting social and environmental activists with a slew of draconian laws and violent police repression.

En route to the London Book Fair, the United Kingdom’s long-running annual book-publishing trade fair, a French publisher had an unusual run-in with British border officials last week. On April 17, Ernest Moret—who works as the foreign rights manager for France’s left-leaning Éditions la Fabrique and as agent for the acclaimed science fiction writer Alain Damasio—was pulled aside for questioning at Paris’s Gare du Nord long enough to miss his train to London. He and his colleague Stella Magliani-Belkacem were able to catch a later train, only to arrive at London’s St. Pancras station to yet another surprise: Plainclothes British police officers were awaiting their arrival. Once on British soil, authorities detained Moret, citing Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, based on his alleged involvement in either past or future French protests regarding the wildly unpopular pension reforms President Emmanuel Macron’s government pushed through in mid-April.

What followed was a Kafkaesque six hours during which the publisher was grilled about everything from his opinion on the proposed increase in the French retirement age to his thoughts about Macron and the Covid-19 pandemic. No questions seemed aimed at any viable threat to British public safety, but rather were entirely based on the publisher’s political beliefs and democratic activities in his home country. According to a joint statement from Éditions la Fabrique and the British-American publisher Verso Books, whose senior editor Sebastian Budgen had invited Moret and Magliani-Belkacem to stay in his London home, Moret was also asked to “name the ‘anti-government’ authors in the catalogue of the publishing house La Fabrique.”

Authorities proceeded to confiscate Moret’s work laptop and personal cell phone, and when he refused to give them his passwords, they used the pretense of “obstruction” to arrest him, holding him overnight in a British Transport Police station in northern London.

“British officers threatened Ernest saying he would never be able to travel again because he’d be labeled a terrorist,” Budgen told The Nation. “They also boasted that the UK’s the only country where authorities can download and keep information from private devices.”

The Terrorism Act of 2000, passed prior to the September 11 attacks under Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government, is indeed one of the most far-reaching anti-terrorism laws in Europe—if not the world. Schedule 7 specifically grants British customs officers the right to stop, detain, and interrogate anyone at the border to determine whether they might be involved in acts of terrorism. The section, which has a “Code of Practice” that has recently been reviewed, also allows officers to confiscate property, and even download any data on devices under the guise of national security. While application of the law has been found to disproportionately discriminate against people from marginalized ethnicities and religions—especially Muslims, in the wake of September 11—Brazilian politician David Miranda was detained for nine hours at London’s Heathrow Airport in 2014. Miranda was carrying sensitive data from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to his partner, journalist Glenn Greenwald, and—just as in Moret’s case—Schedule 7 of the 2000 act was cited. Both Britain’s High Court and Court of Appeal have maintained that the stop was “lawful” because of “pressing national security concerns,” despite also admitting that it was “an indirect interference with press freedom.”

However, Moret’s lawyer Richard Parry believes this is the first time that the law has been used against a book publisher. Parry told The Nation that his client refused consent to his devices’ being searched based on Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights—which the UK is still a party to, despite Brexit. Article 8 enshrines the right to privacy, but Parry believes British officers may have also violated Article 10—freedom of expression—and a few others.

Parry, who also represents victims of secret undercover British police spying among other high-profile human rights cases, said that given the cops’ line of questioning, he and his French colleagues believe it is highly probable that UK officers were acting at the request of French authorities. A number of nations’ border officers maintain extraordinary powers to detain and question people arriving in countries such as the United States and Australia, and can also confiscate and download materials on devices without a warrant—despite the fact that American privacy advocates have argued that this violates the Fourth Amendment. What’s unique and additionally troubling in the La Fabrique publisher’s case is that it seems, as Parry suggests, that British authorities may have been acting not in their own national interest—however unjustifiably—but in that of another country.

News of the publisher’s arrest rippled rapidly through the London Book Fair, where Moret had over 40 scheduled appointments, including with Haymarket Books’ Roisin Davis, who told The Nation she and her colleagues were “shocked” by the incident. Davis, the US independent publisher’s director of rights and an editorial board member, added that the incident “raises a number of frightening questions about the British and French governments’ attempts to eliminate public dissent.” The arrest comes at a time in which both Macron’s and Rishi Sunak’s governments have been brutally cracking down on the right to protest, targeting social and environmental activists with a slew of draconian laws and violent police repression.

Last Tuesday, as Moret’s time in detention approached 24 hours, protesters gathered outside the British Embassy in Paris and the French Institute in London calling for his immediate release. Although he was never charged—and was finally released a few hours later on bail—officials retained his devices. The publisher returned home early on Wednesday, but was summoned to return on May 16 by the Metropolitan Police’s Counterterrorism Command.

Media coverage in the UK and France—as well as other national outlets such as Spain’s El SaltoBrazil’s Opera Mundi, and Al Jazeera English—has been extensive and broadly critical of the arrest, regardless of ideological leanings. While Moret was still being held last Tuesday, a dozen French members of the European Parliament wrote a letter to UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman, condemning the “outrageous and unjustifiable” arrest, adding that questions about Moret’s activism in France seem to “clearly indicate complicity between French and British authorities.” Organizations such as Pen International and La Ligue des auteurs professionnels (League of Professional Authors) and an organizer for the National Union of Journalists roundly condemned the “chilling” overreach. Orenda Books’ Karen Sullivan went so far as to say that after the incident, there “can be no doubt that international publishers and authors…will think twice about visiting the UK.”

But the incident has far-reaching implications beyond the publishing world, argues legal scholar Dermot Feenan. Raised in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, Feenan is painfully aware of the myriad ways anti-terrorism frameworks can be used against activists, public intellectuals, artists, and other civilians. After all, he told The Nation, the 2000 UK law was modeled after anti-terror laws in Northern Ireland. And yet as the impact of the UK’s latest attack on civil liberties and leftist thinkers comes into view, it seems incredible that, just two centuries ago, this nation gave refuge to the likes of Marx and Engels.

Natasha Hakimi Zapata is an award-winning journalist and university lecturer based in Europe. Her work has been published in The Nation, In These Times, ScheerPost, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.

Photo: Peter Trimming / Wikimedia Commons

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