France has been in a state of emergency for nearly two years and law enforcement is using the measure as cover to target minorities and political activists completely unrelated to "terror".
On the evening of November 13, 2015, France stopped breathing, having just undergone one of its bloodiest attacks in modern history. The previous one, in 1961 was orchestrated by a right-wing French paramilitary organization opposed to Algerian independence, leaving 28 people dead.
The country was in shock.
While the Bataclan hostages were being taken, the then-French President Francois Hollande, announced a state of emergency, an exceptional state that gave administrative authorities, such as prefects and police the power to limit freedoms - without recourse to a judicial mandate or warrant.
Initially intended to last twelve days when it was announced by the government, the state of emergency voted in by Parliament on November 20, has now been extended six times. It has lasted almost two years. It has in effect been institutionalised.
This exceptional measure was created in 1955 to counter Algerian independence revolutionaries at war against colonial France.
Since then, the present circumstances mark only the third time that this measure has been applied. From 1985 to 1987, in New Caledonia, it was put in place to stave off a pro-independence anti-colonial uprising. In 2005, it was again used when revolts broke out in French inner cities, following the deaths of two innocent youths of colour, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traore.
Today the list of the victims of the state of emergency include a large number of French citizens from post-colonial immigrant backgrounds. These measures, aside from targeting Muslims accused of “radicalisation” have also been used against ecological activists or anarchists.
The law authorises house arrest with the interior minister’s permission if a person can be justified as showing “serious reasons to think that his behaviour is a threat to public security and order”.
Additionally, administrative searches, data seizures, and even holding minors on the site of a searched premises for up to four hours is authorised. Neither a warrant nor a formal charge is required.
The Human Rights Watch in France has received several complaints denouncing abuses tied to the state of emergency. The report involves complaints of discriminatory raids, warrantless searches, erroneous addresses and even a case of mistaken identity – where one such case ended in violence and a wrongly targeted disabled man had four teeth broken by a police officer.
Two days after the Bataclan attack, a mosque in the Parisian suburb of Aubervilliers, was not only searched but left in a state of pillage (destroyed ceilings, turned over furniture, religious books thrown on the floor) - and nothing was discovered there.
France's Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve later conceded the error.
In Nice, RAID (Intervention Unit of the National Police) mistakenly burst into an apartment, using shotguns. The ceramic bullets hit the bed of a sleeping 7-year-old girl who was wounded by fragments of wood.
In January 2016, HRW conducted interviews with 18 people believed to have been placed under house arrest or searched in an abusive manner. A single mother had her children taken and placed in foster care following a search. Several witnesses admitted being afraid of the police and experiencing rejection and suspicion by their neighbours.
Give an inch, take a mile
The state of emergency has not merely been used in “terror” related investigations.
When the UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris (COP 21) was kicking off in November 2015, ecology activists had planned demonstrations aimed at world leaders attending the event. A few days before the opening of the COP21, twenty-four of the activists—having committed no crime—were placed under house arrest which wasn’t terminated until December - conveniently the date the conference ended.
The state of emergency, intended to contain the terrorist threat, had been hijacked by the French government to squash an environmental movement.
A few months later, the country was overrun by strong opposition to a labour reform law proposed by the government, which gave rise to frequent and massive demonstrations.
Under the spectre of the “terrorist threat” the interior minister decided to banish certain activists from protest marches. Ten people in the Paris region were forbidden to participate in the May 17th march. The right to demonstrate is protected by the Constitution of France and therefore should be impossible to revoke.
Since the initial declaration of the state of emergency, there have been over seven thousand administrative measures, thousands of searches and identity stops, hundreds of people placed under house arrest, visa refusals and demonstrations banned.
Yet 80 percent of searches carried out up until February 2016, when they were at their most frequent, yielded no infractions. Only twenty-three cases made it to the anti-terror court in Paris.
Already in July 2016, the Parliamentary Investigative Committee concluded that the state of emergency had a “limited impact” on security. According to the commission, more effective intelligence analysis would have led to better prevention of attacks.
Sleight of hand
Recently, President Macron, elected under the supposed banner of a “new world” announced the end of the state of emergency. The truth is that his new law reinforcing national security and the fight against terrorism, in effect since November 1, 2017, institutionalizes the provisions of the state of emergency by maintaining four of its provisions.
This is the beginning of a regime of exception giving priority to a so-called "public order" which is in fact to the detriment of public freedoms. The identity checks, known to target and profile minorities, are more or less legalised as they are authorised in a dizzyingly wide array of zones during twelve hours periods, without the existence of any real threats to public order or safety.
Why? To maintain an illusory feeling of security in the collective mind of a public still gripped by fear from the risk of terrorism.
Human Rights Watch denounced the “anti-terrorist laws based on vague terms subject to excessive interpretations on the part of authorities and favouring abuses that can be said to be counter-productive as far as security is concerned”. They add that the laws “sap certain of the most fundamental principles of the state of laws and of human rights and the way the French people have lived and conceive of their democracy since WWII”.
Several NGOs and institutions have expressed similar concerns, from the Magistrate’s Union to the Human Rights League, Amnesty International, the European Council as well as the United Nations.
The trivialisation of a measure employed under an exceptional circumstance, that gives excessive powers to the police, constitutes a danger because it allows a disproportionate—even rogue use—that saps citizens’ confidence in their institutions. Ironically, it is in this climate of defiance that hate and extremism can prosper.
France is on the eve of an uncertain future and it is purportedly the country of “human rights”. As a nation that has always proclaimed that its values are inherited from the Enlightenment, it owes it to herself to show the world that she is still a healthy democracy, sure of herself and her values - and capable of protecting the fundamental rights of her citizens.
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