Hollande’s Post-Paris Power Grab

A reform to France's emergency law provides French police with extraordinary authority and concentrates power in the executive for the next three months.


Far greater authority to carry out searches without warrants. Expansive power to place suspects under house arrest. Access to computers found in raids.

Following last week’s Paris attacks — and embracing a similar civil liberties crackdown in the United States after 9/11 — French lawmakers signed off Friday on a three-month extension to a national state of emergency. But lawmakers didn’t just approve an extension to the suspension of civil liberties and the expansion of police power. They also overhauled the 1955 law governing states of emergency, handing the French government extraordinary authority to fight back domestically against extremist threats like the Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for the rampage that killed 130.

President François Hollande declared the national emergency immediately after the Nov. 13 attacks. It allows police to break down doors and search houses without a warrant, break up assemblies and meetings, and impose curfews. The order also clears the way for military troops to be deployed to French streets. Since then, French security teams have aggressively raided apartments and houses to round up suspects and weaponry.

French authorities haven’t imposed a nationwide state of emergency since 1961, in the depths of the Algerian War, and the measure approved Friday expands an emergency law that was first drafted to empower Paris to put down the Algerian uprising. With the reform in hand, Hollande will spend the next three months with enormous executive power at his disposal.

On Wednesday, French police raided an apartment in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis and engaged in an intense firefight with residents; one person detonated an explosives-packed vest during the assault. Among those killed was Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian terrorist believed to have masterminded the Paris attacks. According to figures released Friday by the French Interior Ministry and carried by the Associated Press, police have conducted 793 raids in the last week, detaining 90 people and seizing 174 weapons, including several military-style assault rifles and at least one rocket launcher. Authorities have placed 164 people under house arrest.

The revisions to the law put forward by Hollande’s government include several key changes that its backers argue are intended to adapt to the realities of a counterterrorism campaign. Under the plan, which will be in place for three months starting Nov. 26, police will be able to place suspects under house arrest on the mere basis that they constitute a threat to the public order.

“The problem in France is that there are a lot of Islamists who were suspected of illicit behavior and the police had information on them, but because they didn’t commit any specific crime, the police couldn’t arrest them,” said Bertrand Mathieu, a professor of law at the Sorbonne. “Now, if someone is so much as suspected of having ties — whether direct or indirect — to terrorists, they could be placed under house arrest.”

Police already have the power to search houses without warrants as part of the state of emergency announced Nov. 13. Under the overhauled plan, police will be empowered to raid a greater variety of locations, including downloading information from computers found during searches.

“What they are asking is to be able to use passwords and other information to go online and access servers, mail servers, and other data not stored on the hard drive,” said Félix Tréguer, a founding member of digital rights group La Quadrature du Net.

The measure also allows the government to dissolve groups — potentially including radical mosques — deemed to undermine public order.

In a nod toward updating a measure with roots in France’s brutal colonial history, Hollande’s government has removed a provision from the law that allowed extensive censorship of the media in times of crisis. It also now prohibits searches without warrants in the homes of lawmakers, lawyers, and journalists.

Faced with the most severe attack on French soil since World War II, Hollande and his advisors have moved to rapidly concentrate power in the executive’s hands, seeking to prevent what they have described as additional strikes on the country. Hollande has suggested he will propose an amendment to the French Constitution allowing a so-called “state of security” that would continue to suspend some rights and liberties but still fall short of full emergency declarations contained in the constitution.

“These are measures we would never have imagined a Socialist government would have proposed,” said Pascal Beauvais, a professor of law at Paris West University Nanterre La Défense.

Observers of French national security law say that the reaction to last week’s attacks stand in stark contrast to the aftermath of the massacre at the office of Charlie Hebdo this past January. Then, Hollande’s government preached caution and urged calm; now, the president has said France is in a state of war with Islamist terrorism, Beauvais said. Hollande’s legal moves draw upon the concepts embedded in the constitution by Charles de Gaulle and the belief that the executive must be able to act decisively in a crisis, Beauvais added.

With French officials adopting a martial mindset, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned Thursday that the attacks on a soccer stadium, restaurants, bars, and a concert hall may pale in comparison to future threats. “We know and bear in mind that there is also a risk of chemical or biological weapons,” Valls said before Parliament. (Experts are deeply skeptical that an attack using such weapons could take place.)

In a video distributed online Friday, two French-speaking Islamic State fighters pledged that attacks on France will continue. “You have no safety, not even in your own homes,” one of the fighters said in the video, according to a translation provided by the SITE Intelligence Group. “Praise be to Allah, we will return with other operations, Allah willing. As long as you assault us in our country, we will strike you in your own home.”

With regional and presidential elections on the horizon, experts argue that Hollande is operating at least in part with domestic political concerns in mind. Hollande is the least popular president in French history, and his Socialists are flagging in the polls as conservative rivals both on the far right and in the center capture increasing support. Marine Le Pen, head of the xenophobic, far-right National Front, has used the attacks in Paris to argue that France must shut its borders to immigration and reconsider its position within Europe’s open political system. Hollande’s aggressive response, out of character with his typically placid demeanor, suggests he may be acting at least in part to shore up political support.

On Friday, European ministers gathered in Brussels approved a measure to clamp down on border security and check travelers for any connections to terrorist groups.

Marc Hecker, a research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, pointed out that French authorities already have quite broad power to combat terrorism — even as attacks have continued. Amid a wave of violence in the 1990s, France passed a 1996 anti-terrorism law granting authorities more power to intervene pre-emptively against attacks. A year ago, France passed another anti-terrorism law to address lone-wolf attackers who had been trained abroad. And this past May, French legislators passed an intelligence bill empowering the country’s spies to collect far greater amounts of computer data.

France is not alone in its security crackdown. Governments across Europe are moving aggressively to expand police powers. In Belgium, for example, where the Paris attacks were reportedly planned, the government asked lawmakers to approve a slew of aggressive counterterrorism measures. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel suggested Thursday that individuals on terrorism watch lists should be fitted with ankle bracelets to track their movements, that fighters returning from Syria should be immediately jailed upon arrival, and that the government needs additional authority to tap phone lines and hold suspects.

In Britain, lawmakers are considering a government proposal to strengthen surveillance powers.

In the United States, government officials have used the Paris attacks to renew demands that tech companies provide a backdoor into encrypted communication tools. FBI Director James Comey on Wednesday said that the Islamic State is encrypting its messages to plan terrorist attacks. “If they find someone they think may kill on their behalf, or might come and kill in the caliphate, they move to a mobile messaging app that’s end-to-end encrypted,” Comey said at a New York conference.

But the problem facing French intelligence and law enforcement may not be a problem of legal authority — but of capacity.

In an interview shortly before the Paris attacks, Marc Trévidic, a prominent former French counterterrorism judge, very nearly predicted the slaughter. “France is the main target of an army of terrorists with unlimited means,” he told Paris Match. “We — the judges, the police, the field men — we are completely overwhelmed. We are in danger of ‘going through the wall.’”

“The French will not have to get used to the threat of attacks, but to the reality of attacks,” Trévidic added. “We must not close our eyes. We are now in the eye of the cyclone. The worst is ahead of us.”

Siobhán O’Grady contributed reporting to this article.

Photo credit: ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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