The courage to end France’s state of emergency

By Camille Blanc, (Amnesty International France) and Bénédicte Jeannerod (Human Rights Watch)

The state of emergency in France has already been renewed four times in the past year. During that time, people have been placed under house arrest, held for questioning, banned from attending demonstrations, had their homes raided, all without access to legal redress.

During that time, a rhetoric of fear has dominated the public debate, stifling either questions or criticism. French politicians have wholeheartedly endorsed the normalization of such exceptional arrangements.

While it is their duty to take the necessary measures to protect the French population, leaders also have a responsibility to ensure that the state of emergency does not become the norm
Camille Blanc and Bénédicte Jeannerod

Nevertheless there have been expressions of concern and condemnation on both a national and international level: the National Human Rights Commission, the Human Rights Ombudsman, the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner and UN independent experts have all warned the French authorities of the risks and consequences of a lasting state of emergency.

Civil society has made its voice heard on multiple occasions. Citizens’ associations, lawyers, judges, human rights defenders, neighbourhood associations and unions have all raised questions, made criticisms and issued warnings based on their surveys and work on the ground, for this state of emergency has long outlived the already fragile framework within which it was established.

According to figures from the Ministry of the Interior, the security forces have undertaken 4,292 raids, 612 house arrests and 1,657 identity checks or car searches. These have resulted in 20 judicial investigations for "criminal association in relation to a terrorist undertaking".

And yet, in parallel, between November 2015 and July 2016, the counter-terrorism unit of the Prosecutor’s Office opened 96 judicial investigations for similar offences, within the context of its usual powers. So where is the need for a derogation from this framework?

There are serious doubts as to the effectiveness of an ongoing state of emergency, not to mention the very real consequences such measures have on the lives of those targeted. Thousands of women, men and children have been subjected to often traumatizing raids, while 612 people have been confined to their homes, without any charges being brought for acts of terrorism. Hundreds of people have been prevented from demonstrating and dozens of protests have been banned.

Courage lies not in taking refuge behind security decoys but reaffirming the fundamental principles of the rule of law
Camille Blanc and Bénédicte Jeannerod

While it is their duty to take the necessary measures to protect the French population, leaders also have a responsibility to ensure that the state of emergency does not become the norm and to question the need for its renewal. A policy of fear seems to have triumphed over one of reason. And this fear has resulted in blindness and a lack of political courage.

For courage lies not in systematically taking refuge behind security decoys. Courage lies in reaffirming the fundamental principles of the rule of law in the war on terror, and this includes the need for real control on the part of the justice system. Courage lies in being able to say no when the temptation to act arbitrarily arises in response to the legitimate fears of the population.

Courage lies in sometimes choosing not just the most difficult and most demanding path, but one which is also consistent. For it is impossible to defend the rule of law by renouncing it.

Over the past year, the French penal system has become tougher while controls mechanisms have been weakened.

Will French politicians again abandon fundamental principles such as the presumption of innocence, separation of powers, the right to a fair trial, the right to protection from discrimination, in the name of security? Will deputies again risk weakening the rule of law in the name of a dangerous arrangement and supposed effectiveness?

This ongoing state of emergency is leading us into a terrible spiral.

It is time French deputies dared to say ‘enough is enough’. It is precisely in difficult times that courageous politicians are recognized.

The rule of law is built each and every day on the basis of a justice system which, as guarantor of the rights and duties of all, anticipates, investigates and prosecutes.

Such a justice system protects victims and offers them justice. Such a justice system protects us all from arbitrary acts.

This article first appeared in Liberation.