France’s permanent state of emergency
The French parliament voted overwhelmingly to convert some emergency police powers into permanent law as the country tries to face up to the continuing threat of home-grown terrorism. Three-quarters of MPs backed a bill that would allow police to use powers that largely mirror those granted under the state of emergency declared after the Bataclan attacks on November 13, 2015, and extended six times.
The bill, adopted by the French parliament October 18, would give police the right to restrict the movement of terror suspects without judicial approval and shut down places of worship if they are deemed by intelligence services to be encouraging terrorism. Police would be able to raid homes and other places on terrorism grounds after getting a judge’s approval. Officers would be able to do so based on intelligence reports that would not necessarily be enough evidence to open a judicial investigation.
An unprecedented series of attacks by Islamist extremists have claimed 239 lives in France since 2015, the latest being the stabbing to death of two women on the steps of the Marseille-St-Charles railway station and the discovery of explosive devices in front of a block of flats in the 16th arrondissement of Paris.
A debate on the role of Islam in the radicalisation of young people and how to counter that threat rages across the French media day-in, day-out with many journalists striking ideological poses rather than trying to understand the very complex nature of modern jihadism.
As he campaigned for the presidency last winter, Emmanuel Macron argued that laws beefing up powers for anti-terror judges and the intelligence services were enough to tackle terrorism. More than 4,300 raids, 439 house arrests and 16 closures of mosques carried out during the state of emergency had, after all, produced a paltry 20 prosecutions. The then-liberal politician sided with a parliamentary report that concluded that the expansion of police powers had produced only “modest” results.
Macron wrote in his book “Revolution” that recent laws boosting the powers of counterterror judges and surveillance tools for intelligence agencies were sufficient to tackle the threat of terrorism.
He has changed tack, bowing to pressure from the public, politicians and the media. His minister of the interior, Gérard Collomb, argued that France was “still in a situation of war” as he attempted to diffuse critics who argued that some of the controls enshrined in the new law go against civil liberties. Macron belongs to a growing group of politicians who bow to the wind to gain votes. There is no better subject to do so than where jihadist terrorism is concerned.
Collomb refused to accept what some judges, lawyers and human rights organisations argued infringes civil liberties and targets Muslims and people with North African faces. This type of targeting resulted in many mistakes over the years and serious harassment of young Frenchmen of Muslim origin.
The minister and the president can point to the fact that France is number one target in the West for the Islamic State (ISIS), accounting for 30% of attacks or foiled plots related to the extremist group, data from the Paris-based Centre for the Analysis of Terrorism indicate.
That is true but the lack of coordination among police and security services often allows suspects to evade arrest and attempts to better organise matters have been very slow. Turf wars are not infrequent in the security services, the gendarmerie and the police. The media are much less interested in such matters, preferring to scare listeners and viewers with high-pitch words and blood-soaked images. This encourages populism, which is rooted in the growing social disparities across Europe.
There is little sign that this trend in toughening laws and giving police and security services more power will abate anytime soon as the Middle East continues in turmoil and the home-grown nature of jihadism in France and the United Kingdom will continue. Critics, especially lawyers, however, warn that the new law would erode the presumption of innocence in matters of terrorism and, as such, would “contaminate” the rule of law and the justice system.
If the police use sometimes flimsy, anonymous intelligence, Amnesty International’s warning that the new legislation would “trample” the very rights Macron was elected to uphold will come true.
Stigmatising Muslims is obvious across a broad spectrum of the media. TV debates are full of ignorant clichés about Islam and the situation appears to have trapped French politicians in a security spiral they are powerless to escape from. Slowly reversing the burden of proof onto defendants will not, however, make France a happier place. The country’s leaders would do well to tone down their boasts that it gave rise to the rights of man.