Exclusive: France’s response to last year’s terror attacks in Paris imposed draconian measures that waived basic civil rights during the immediate “emergency,” but the French parliament is now considering making those rules permanent, as Jonathan Marshall explains.
By Jonathan Marshall
When Islamist radicals destroy centuries-old artifacts, from Bamyan to Palmyra, civilized people everywhere register their outrage. Yet in the name of fighting those same Islamists, some Western governments are destroying their own architecture of legal and human rights that took centuries to build.
The United States, post-9/11, offers countless examples. But now the government of French President François Hollande is bucking condemnations from local and international human rights groups, the United Nations, and the European Council to ram through parliament constitutional amendments that would permanently enshrine the government’s emergency powers.
In the classic words of authoritarian leaders everywhere, France’s interior minister insists, “it is terrorism that is the threat to freedom not the state of emergency.”
France is today living under a temporary national state of emergency, imposed after the Nov. 13, 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and injured hundreds. Already extended once, the emergency will expire Feb. 26, unless extended again by parliament.
The national emergency, based on legislation dating back to the Algerian War in 1955, gives the government extraordinary rights to search homes and hold people under house arrest without warrants, ban public protests, and censor the media. The French bar association condemned it as “a judicial and social model which breaks with republican values.”
The constitutional amendments, if adopted, would not only bar legal challenges to the emergency powers, but would strip French-born nationals of their citizenship if they are convicted of terrorism. Hollande’s Justice Minister, Christiane Taubira, resigned in protest against the latter proposal. She tweeted, with a nod to Charles de Gaulle, “sometimes resisting means leaving.”
Critics point out that France’s police have widely abused their extraordinary powers, making life miserable for innocent suspects and generating more sympathy for Islamist radicals among the country’s marginalized Muslim population.
In early February, Human Rights Watch released a report based on interviews with 18 people who had suffered unjustified police raids on their homes, restaurants or mosques, or been detained under house arrest for no apparent cause. In the process, these police actions have terrified parents and children and left some adults unable to earn a living. In some cases, judges have harshly condemned the raids, after the fact.
“In one house raid, police broke four of a disabled man’s teeth before they realized he wasn’t the person they were looking for,” the organization reported. “In another case, a single mother’s children were transferred to foster care following a raid. Many of those interviewed said they were now scared of the police and have been shunned by their neighbors.”
“France has a responsibility to ensure public safety and try to prevent further attacks, but the police have used their new emergency powers in abusive, discriminatory, and unjustified ways,” said Izza Leghtas, Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This abuse has traumatized families and tarnished reputations, leaving targets feeling like second-class citizens.”
Since November, French police have conducted more than 3,200 raids and put about 400 people under house arrest. Yet for all that, prosecutors had initiated only five terrorism-related investigations as of Feb. 2.
“This state of emergency seems to have had relatively limited concrete effects in terms of fighting against terrorism,” commented Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, “but it has on the other hand greatly restricted the exercise of fundamental liberties and weakened certain guarantees of the rule of law.”
French human rights observers note that such heavy-handed tactics may in fact be counterproductive. “These measures are aimed at a specific movement and at very observant Muslims,” said Jacques Toubon, the French human rights ombudsperson. “That can give rise to a feeling of injustice and of defiance towards public authorities.”
Like Washington’s own commitment to fighting an open-ended “war on terrorism,” the French government envisions governing under a state of emergency virtually in perpetuity. Prime Minister Manuel Valls told a reporter the extraordinary powers must remain in effect “until we can get rid of” Islamic State. “As long as the threat is there, we must use all the means,” he said.
France has been increasing police powers for years. In 2013, the legislature quietly passed a law codifying sweeping electronic surveillance powers available to the country’s intelligence agencies, with no judicial review. It passed sweeping new anti-terrorism legislation in 2014 and again in 2015, after the attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine.
Yet none of those laws prevented incompetent police from letting known terrorists freely cross European borders to strike last November.
As Leela Jacinto, a reporter for France 24, commented, “Even before the Charlie Hebdo attacks, French anti-terrorism laws were so tight, they didn’t need further tightening, they simply had to be put to better use. Under the controversial 1996 anti-terrorism statute known as . . . ‘terrorist criminal association,’ thousands have been arrested and hundreds convicted. Prosecutors have sought and won convictions not by proving the existence of a terrorist plot, but by simply showing ‘participation in a grouping or an agreement established with a view to the preparation’ of a terrorist act.
“Defense lawyers complain their clients have been declared guilty of ‘address book’ crimes. Worse, this paint-by-numbers scheme only accelerated the flow of young, mostly Muslim, men into notorious French prisons . . . where, ironically, they have associated with hardened criminals-turned-jihadis, emerging from the system more dangerous than they were before they entered.”
Jonathan Marshall is author or co-author of five books on international affairs, including The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War and the International Drug Traffic (Stanford University Press, 2012). Some of his previous articles for Consortiumnews were “Risky Blowback from Russian Sanctions”; “Neocons Want Regime Change in Iran”; “Saudi Cash Wins France’s Favor”; “The Saudis’ Hurt Feelings”; “Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Bluster”; “The US Hand in the Syrian Mess”; and “Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War.” ]