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Are French civil liberties another victim of Paris attacks?

Pascal Guyot, AFP | Police officers patrol the streets of Montpellier, France, during a peace march on November 22, 2015

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, France has enacted a three-month state of emergency, widening the powers of police and security agencies. It has done so with relatively little public debate about the deterioration of civil liberties.

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French lawmakers in both the National Assembly and upper-house Senate last week widely approved an escalation of security, which will allow authorities broader use of house arrests, electronic bracelets and warrantless searches. The law also allows the Interior Ministry to unilaterally shut down websites and social network accounts that are seen as justifying or inciting terrorist acts.

The raft of measures included in the extension of the state of emergency declared by François Hollande the day after coordinated attacks killed 130 people in and around the French capital was massively backed by Parliament. The lower-house National Assembly saw only six of its 557 members vote against it, with one abstention. In the Senate there were 12 abstentions, but not a single vote of opposition among its 336 seats.

The change in legislation effectively means that France will be in a state of emergency in December when voters cast ballots in regional elections. It also doubles-down on a law granting French authorities sweeping powers to eavesdrop on Internet and mobile phone users that was adopted as recently as June.

It also buys the government time to draft a constitutional amendment that would give the executive branch and certain government agencies temporary exceptional powers to fight terrorism.

Security measures have already gone into overdrive since the November 13 attacks. France’s Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve on Monday revealed that it had conducted 1,072 police searches, issued 253 house arrests, and arrested 117 people in the past 10 days.

Police have banned public gatherings and marches in Paris citing ongoing security concerns. Last week officials formally put the brakes on two so-called “citizen marches” in Paris meant to coincide with the start and the closure of the upcoming UN climate summit. More recently, authorities called off a rally in support of refugees in central Paris on Sunday.

Wide support

France likes to claim it is the Pays des Droits de l’Homme, or Country of Human Rights. But the fast and fierce restriction on civil liberties – like the fundamental right to assemble – has met with surprisingly little resistance.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls on November 19 gave an impassioned speech to lawmakers in which he repeated that “security is the first among liberties”, an adage that appears to deeply resound among Parisians who are now mourning family and friends gunned down by jihadists or who know one of the scores of people injured in the violence.

More than 90 percent of adults in France support the prolonged state of emergency championed by the government, want more police officers, and stricter border controls, a study by French polling firm Ifop revealed a day after the attacks.

A study conducted one week later, this time by research institute BVA, showed virtually identical results. Ninety percent of people said they were in favour of putting French citizens returning from Syria under house arrest, while almost 80 percent backed constitutional changes granting officials exceptional powers during a crisis.

Voices of dissent

An overwhelming majority of members of the ruling Socialist Party, and of the conservative opposition, have lined up behind the left-wing president. However, not everyone is giving Hollande and law enforcement agencies a blank cheque.

Among the first groups that spoke up against France’s new security offensive was the powerful CGT union. It warned in a statement on November 18 of the danger of installing a “permanent state of emergency” that would serve to muzzle protests and social movements.

Left-wing leader and former presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon on Sunday told France 3 television that he would have likely voted against extending the state of emergency if he were still an MP, but the firebrand figure refrained from chastising comrades from his own Left Party who supported the legislation.

“I want it to be very clear that it is [the Islamic State group] that scores a point – because it is against our freedom, against our way of life – every time we sacrifice a little bit of our way of living,” Mélenchon said.

Emmanuelle Cosse, leader of France’s Green Party, on Tuesday told RTL radio that it was important to remain “vigilant”, so as to keep a temporary and necessary security measures from “becoming permanent”. Amnesty International France issued a similar warning last week, saying the security drive should be “temporary, justified, in commensurate to the threat”.

While residents of the capital are still nursing the emotional wounds of the attack, some among them are also beginning to question if limits on civil liberties are the right response. A few hundred people turned up at the banned march in support of refugees in Place de la Bastille on Sunday. Marchers, accompanied by a police escort, peacefully made their way to the Place de la Bastille, but were by then chanting an altogether different slogan: “State of emergency! Police state. They can’t take away our right to demonstrate!"

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