France’s permanent state of emergency

It was still dark outside when police burst through the door of Amar’s parents’ flat on the outskirts of Paris in the early hours of the morning. “They handcuffed me and pushed me to the floor,” he recalls. “When I asked them why they were doing this, they just said I could be a threat.” The search did not lead to any criminal investigation against Amar but the memory of that pre-dawn raid continues to haunt him and his family.

French MPs are set to vote on a new bill that – if passed – threatens to embed a raft of repressive measures into ordinary law

Marco Perolini

This was back in November 2015, soon after the horrific Paris attacks. The newly introduced state of emergency had granted the authorities exceptional new powers, including the authority to search any premises – without judicial oversight – on very vague grounds far below the threshold required under French criminal law.

Almost two years later, French MPs are set to vote on a new bill that – if passed – will facilitate the end of the state of emergency law that has cast a long shadow over France. But rather than ushering in a period of restored freedoms and civil liberties, the legislation threatens to do the opposite by embedding a raft of repressive measures into ordinary law.

It is a far cry from the vision set out by a newly elected President Macron in July. Speaking before Parliament in Versailles, he promised to “restore the freedoms of the French” and “guarantee full respect for individual liberties”. Despite this, Macron and his government have helped fast-track a bill granting the Minister of Interior and Prefects – the state’s local representatives – powers to impose measures, very similar to the current exceptional measures, on vague grounds and with limited judicial oversight.

Prefects will be able to order “search and seizure operations” – effectively raids – as well as shut down places of worship and establish security zones, where people are subject to identity checks and searches. The Minister of Interior will be granted new control powers to monitor individuals and restrict their freedom of movement. Among these discretionary powers, only searches will have to be authorised by a judge. This is a key additional safeguard, absent under the state of emergency, but it does not go far enough.

It is a far cry from the vision set out by a newly elected President Macron in July

Marco Perolini

In much the same way as the state of emergency has allowed, any of the new counter-terrorism measures can be used to limit people’s rights and freedoms on very vague grounds, such as “glorifying terrorism” or because of an ill-defined “threat to national security”. The vagueness of these grounds, combined with the highly discretionary powers granted to administrative authorities, raises serious concerns about the application of these measures. To prevent abuse, it is crucial that they are only imposed on clear and precise grounds, and where there is a clear link to the commission of a terrorism-related act of violence.

Indeed, there is already evidence that the emergency powers have been implemented in a disproportionate and discriminatory manner. They have been used to target Muslims, often on the basis of their beliefs and religious practices, rather than any concrete evidence of criminal behaviour.

“It feels like if you display your religion, if you are bearded or wear a religious symbol or dress, or if you pray in a particular mosque, you can be considered to be “radical” and thus targeted,” says Amar. “If you try not to display your religion too much, then they think you are concealing something.”

Despite additional safeguards incorporated into the bill being put to vote – most notably the requirement for house searches to be authorized by a judge and for the measures to be only used for the purpose of countering terrorism – concerns have not been allayed. Authorities will continue to be able to impose restrictive measures against people who may have committed no crime, without the mandatory safeguards inherent in all criminal proceedings.

The state of emergency has been renewed five times and has normalized a range of intrusive measures issued in the name of countering terrorism. These include disproportionate restrictions on the rights to freedom of movement and religion and to privacy and peaceful assembly which have already affected thousands of people. If passed in its current form, the new law will embed the essence of these emergency measures – intended as a temporary and exceptional response to a heightened risk – into a permanent feature of French domestic law.

The need to protect people from wanton violence is clear. But this cannot be achieved by riding roughshod over the very rights that the government has an obligation uphold

Marco Perolini

Since 2015, more than 240 people have been killed in several attacks on the general population in France. These crimes have not just targeted individuals, they have also represented an attack of human rights and freedoms. The need to protect people from such wanton violence is clear. However it cannot be achieved by riding roughshod over the very rights that the government has an obligation uphold.

The need for such legislation – which does not sufficiently protect against abuse – is highly questionable, given the legal and judicial powers already in place to counter terrorism-related crimes. If the Members of the Parliament do adopt the bill, they must not do so before amending it to ensure that it respects France’s constitutional and international obligations regarding human rights and fundamental freedoms. Eschewing any concept that rights must be restricted to provide security, they must instead uphold the principle that security should be provided so that people can enjoy rights.

France is at a crossroads. The direction it chooses will have a long lasting and profound impact on its people and the rights and freedoms that they enjoy.  

This article was first published here by the Huffingon Post.