Three months after the Islamic State attacks, France is on the verge of declaring a state of emergency, forever.
- By Leela JacintoLeela Jacinto is an award-winning international news reporter at France 24 specializing in the Middle East and South Asia.
What a difference a year makes. Just 12 little months and the spirit of solidarity after the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks — which drew millions to the streets across France — is dead.
The first anniversary of the three-day terrorism spree came and went with a clutch of senior officials and invited guests gathering at Place de la République in the heart of Paris while aging French rocker Johnny Hallyday crooned, “One Sunday in January.” While residents going about their daily business maneuvered around security blocks, the press picked desultory quotes from the handful of people at the square about “mixed feelings,” with one 54-year-old museum technician noting, “It is terrible to attack journalists, but it’s scary to live under a state of emergency.”
Weeks later, thousands of demonstrators gathered at Place de la République to protest the proposed extension of France’s new wartime footing. Braving the pelting rain, protesters chanted, “Stop the state of emergency!” and “State of emergency — police state!”
But there’s no stopping French President François Hollande’s government now, and everyone at the square on that cold, wet Saturday in January knew that well.
A 1955 legal provision instituted during the brutal Algerian war of independence, the state of emergency was introduced for an initial 12-day period in the immediate aftermath of the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, which killed 130 people. Barely a week later, the French Parliament voted to extend the law for another three months to Feb. 26.
The state of emergency looks set for a further extension, giving the government time to raise its “tough on terrorism” fever to new heights.
On Feb. 8, the National Assembly approved the first article of a draft constitutional amendment that would see the state of emergency measure — which exists as a separate law — enshrined in the French Constitution. The late Monday night vote, by an overwhelming 103 to 26 votes, was the first in a series of steps before the constitution is finally amended, a process that should take weeks as the package of measures moves from the lower to the upper houses of Parliament. The procedure may be complicated, but the implication is clear: Enshrining the state of emergency provision in the constitution gives the executive branch extraordinary powers — at the cost of the judiciary — since it protects the measure from legal challenges.
A constitutional amendment — fancy that! At the Davos summit last month, when French Prime Minister Manuel Valls was asked how long he proposed extending the state of emergency, he replied, “as long as the threat is there.” Given that the jihadi threat is not going anywhere anytime soon, this effectively means … forever. At this rate, France is beginning to make the likes of George W. Bush and his infamous legal advisor Alberto Gonzales seem like a bunch of cheese-eating surrender monkeys.
Another major amendment will see French-born nationals stripped of their citizenship if they are convicted in terrorism cases. The controversial nationality-stripping provision has sparked a season of French political high drama, complete with the resignation of Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, who opposed the measure.
France has a history of terrorist attacks followed by tightened anti-terrorism laws dating back to the mid-1990s, when Algerian Islamist militants, incensed at Paris’s perceived support of the Algerian military junta, conducted a series of attacks on French soil.
Following the 2012 Toulouse shootings, when lone gunman Mohamed Merah killed seven people in southern France, a new anti-terrorism law cracking down on French nationals training in overseas terrorist camps was passed. The law provided authorities sweeping powers to monitor telephone and Internet data, but it did nothing to stem the tide of Frenchmen traveling to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and the new jihadi badlands of Syria. Shortly after the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks, Parliament rushed through a new round of tough anti-terrorism laws — dubbed “the French Patriot Act” — which included travel bans on anyone suspected of planning a jihadi trip abroad.
They failed miserably, of course. On Nov. 13, 2015, 130 people were killed in and around Paris in the first terrorist attacks in a Western country to be officially claimed by the Islamic State. The Paris ringleader, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was a well-known jihadi who “starred” in a number of grisly video clips, including one featuring him driving an SUV towing corpses through the Syrian desert. The Belgium-born jihadi frequently boasted about how he could blithely cross European borders and that Belgian and French authorities were useless.
He was right. Abaaoud had managed to re-enter France, participate in the Nov. 13 terrorism spree, and remain parked under the noses of the French intelligence services in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis, where he was finally found and killed days after the attacks following a tipoff from Moroccan intelligence. The drumbeat of French security failures has been steady and has at times risen to almost farcical levels, as I noted back in 2014, when three dangerous suspects returning from Islamic State-controlled parts of Syria “got lost” in the French countryside.
After a year bookended by deadly terrorist attacks conducted by familiar jihadi figures, no official heads have rolled, no one has been sacked, and not a single senior official or minister has been hauled over the coals.
Instead, the Hollande administration has been pushing new anti-terrorism measures, despite howls of condemnation from U.N. special rapporteurs and the European Council secretary-general, as well as French and international human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
They’re pissing in the wind, this civil liberties crowd. The horse has already bolted while French lawmakers in the coming weeks tinker with the stable hinges. 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 association de malfaiteurs terroriste, or “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 such as Fleury-Mérogis, where, ironically, they have associated with hardened criminals-turned-jihadis, emerging from the system more dangerous than they were before they entered. It’s a recurring pattern in French jihadis’ profiles, one that has created radicalized networks that have included the Charlie Hebdo gunmen, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, and their friend Amedy Coulibaly, who attacked a Paris kosher supermarket.
The latest post-attack security rethink takes police powers to new heights. Since the state of emergency was declared in November, police have conducted more than 3,200 house searches without warrants, imposed some 400 assigned residence (a form of house arrest) orders, and closed numerous mosques and businesses. That’s a heck of a lot of French lives — overwhelmingly Muslim lives — disrupted. These include people who now say they have been fired from jobs due to the stigma of a house search or arrest, though that was never cited as the reason for dismissal. Those placed on assigned residency have to report to a police station as often as three times a day and require special permission to travel beyond a certain area. All these house searches and arrests have resulted in the launch of only 25 criminal investigations, of which 21 were under an “apology of terrorism” offense — which is actually a poor apology of a law.
A Feb. 4 Amnesty International report, titled “Upturned Lives: The Disproportionate Impact of France’s State of Emergency,” provides damning insight into the recent excesses and violations committed by the authorities. The 40-page report cites a number of cases, including a jaw-dropping police search of a women’s shelter on Dec. 8. The only official at the shelter that night was a young woman, identified as Virginie, who “did not understand why the shelter had been searched,” the report dryly notes. Neither can I, for that matter.
What’s the purpose of conducting an intrusive, terrifying night search on a shelter housing abused women? To figure out if they were associated with the suspicious males they are now trying to flee? Media reports quoted French officials as saying the shelter, run by an association called Baytouna, houses women whose husbands went to fight in Syria. Baytouna, which means “our house” in Arabic, denies the charges. But the police seem willing to play the spin game — in one case, the media duly reported that firearms were found in a mosque in the Parisian suburb of Lagny-sur-Marne, which was then shut down. The official police report, however, said nothing was found at the mosque and no criminal investigation was launched. Even if the accusations against the Baytouna shelter were true, women abandoned by husbands fighting in Syria do not constitute an immediate security threat to France.
The state of emergency has raised widespread concerns of further stigmatization and discrimination of France’s already marginalized Muslims. This, as security and human rights experts note, is not helpful. “Practices that discriminate against Muslims are counterproductive as well as reprehensible and unlawful, alienating French Muslims and undermining cooperation between Muslim communities and law enforcement efforts that could assist in identifying local terrorism threats based on radical Islam,” said a Human Rights Watch statement. Focusing on mosques and Muslim community associations makes little sense: Islamic State ideologues exhort young people to avoid mosques and community centers where Muslim community elders have little sympathy for its nihilist brand of Islamism. The new pattern of individualized radicalization has also been well established with leading French Islamic studies expert Olivier Roy noting that “radicalisation is a youth revolt against society.… It is not the uprising of a Muslim community victim of poverty and racism.”
Every single French official and policy expert I have spoken to is aware of Roy’s research findings and has carefully read his Nov. 24 Le Monde column, “Jihadism is a generational and nihilistic revolt.” But they can’t seem to translate that into policy. Or they don’t want to. And there’s a simple reason for this.
It’s political high season in France, and all eyes are on the 2017 presidential election. Political party pundits are reading from the same hymnal, which maintains there’s a “droitisation” — or rightward lurch — in the public mood. Party bosses are straining so far right, they’re starting to topple over.
When Nicolas Sarkozy was president, he proposed a “déchéance de nationalité” — or stripping of French nationality — in terrorism cases, which was greeted by howls of protest and petitions signed by leftist intellectuals and politicians such as Hollande and Valls. The most public proponent of the measure in government today? Monsieur Valls.
Droitisation has a way of pushing ideals to the winds. The déchéance de nationalité drama is so juicy, it threatens to overshadow the deeper issues at play. With schisms in the ruling Socialist Party, high-profile resignations, political backtracking, and even a confusion over whether the measure applies only to dual nationals or all French nationals and how that upholds under international law, the press has its plate full.
Buried in this deluge is the fundamental principle of executive power overriding judicial checks and balances. One of the more troubling developments over the past few months has been a steady stream of appeals against the state of emergency that have been overruled by the Conseil d’État, or Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court. These include an appeal by environmental activists during the U.N. conference on climate change (COP21) in Paris against the assigned residence of some activists under the state of emergency provisions. The Conseil d’État ruled in favor of the Interior Ministry’s argument that environmental protests could disturb the public order — even though the house arrests and protest bans were not aimed at “preventing the commission of further acts of terrorism.” Then, on Jan. 27, the Conseil d’État rejected an appeal by the Paris-based Human Rights League to suspend the state of emergency.
These are just some of the more high-profile cases that have made the news. The cases of ordinary French Muslims losing their appeals against assigned residency orders rarely make headlines. But they have been systematic enough for Amnesty International to warn that “[a]dministrative courts and the Council of State have very rarely challenged the information included in the notes collected by the intelligence services” and that “courts had tended to show strong deference to the arguments put forward by the Ministry of Interior.”
The Hollande administration’s move to declare a state of emergency may have been justifiable in the immediate aftermath of the Nov. 13 Paris attacks. Three months later, it’s time to sit back and assess which measures are necessary and which ones are a distraction, hogging time and resources while the real business of improving intelligence, implementing existing laws, and addressing the social malaise underlying youth radicalization is being ignored. But that’s not going to happen, of course. In France, as in too many other countries, high political drama always trumps substantive policy rethinks. Let the political games begin.
Photo credit: GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP/Getty Images