Hollande seeks to extend state of emergency despite critics

Jean-François Monier, AFP | Demonstrators protest against the state of emergency in Rennes on January 23, 2016.

The French government’s bid to extend the state of emergency imposed after the November 13 Paris attacks received a boost Thursday when France’s top court rejected an appeal to end the controversial measures.


Barely two days after a group of UN special rapporteurs on human rights issued an extraordinary condemnation of France’s state of emergency, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls did the media rounds at Davos, vowing to prolong the controversial measures as long as “the threat is there”.

In an interview with the BBC at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in the Swiss ski resort last week, Valls stressed that France was “at war” against the Islamic State (IS) group.

"As long as the threat is there, we must use all available means," said the French prime minister, adding that the state of emergency should stay in place "until we can get rid of Daesh”, using a pejorative Arabic acronym for the jihadist group.

The official position on seeking to prolong the state of emergency until the demise of Daesh – effectively setting an open-ended extension of sweeping executive powers – is a measure of the hardline position President François Hollande’s government has taken since the November 13, 2015, Paris attacks that killed 130 people.

The government’s “tough on terror” position comes despite condemnations from civil rights advocates over France’s declining liberties.

On January 19, a group of four UN human rights specialists issued a statement blasting the “excessive and disproportionate restrictions on fundamental freedoms” under the state of emergency. “As France debates the strengthening of measures in the fight against terrorism, and considers a reform of the criminal procedure, we call on the authorities to revise the provisions and possible reforms adopted to that end, to ensure they comply with international human rights law,” they noted.

The statement came as a Paris-based NGO appealed to the Conseil d’État – France’s highest court on administrative justice, which also serves as the legal adviser of the executive branch – to suspend the state of emergency.

But in a verdict passed Thursday, the Conseil d’État rejected the appeal, noting that, “the imminent peril justifying the state of emergency has not disappeared given the continuation of terror threats and the risk of attacks.”

The ruling is a boost to the Hollande administration’s bid to extend the state of emergency, which enjoys popular support in France. An iTele-Huffington Post survey published in early January found nearly seven in 10 French people – or 69 percent of respondents – were in favour of extending the measure beyond its February 26 expiration date.

In its appeal, the Human Rights League (known by its French acronym, LDH) suggested that if the state of emergency could not be suspended, the Conseil d’État should at the very least suspend some of its measures, such as house searches and the ban on public gatherings.

Despite the condemnations and legal challenges from civil rights groups, the prolongation of the state emergency enjoys popular support in France. An iTele-Huffington Post survey published in early January found nearly seven in 10 French people – or 69% of respondents – were in favour of extending the measure beyond its February 26 expiration date.

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 November 13 attacks. Barely a week later, parliament voted to extend the law for another three months to February 26.

Over the past few weeks, senior French officials have given several indications that the Hollande administration will ask parliament to extend the measures for a further three-month period. Hollande has also submitted proposed constitutional amendments that would make it easier for the government to declare a state of emergency and decrease the possibility of legal challenges to its actions while the measures are active.

House arrests without judicial authorisation

The expanded emergency powers allow the government to order house arrests without authorisation from a judge, conduct searches without a judicial warrant, ban public gatherings that could disturb the public order, and block websites deemed to glorify terrorism without prior judicial authorisation.

In the weeks after the November 13 attacks, French authorities carried out 2,700 house searches without warrants and imposed assigned residency on hundreds of people, restricting their freedom of movement, according to an Amnesty International statement issued on December 22, 2015.

“The 2,700 [police] raids carried out in the past month have resulted in only two criminal investigations for terrorism-related offences; a further 488 investigations resulting from these raids were for unrelated criminal offences. These figures raise doubts as to whether these raids are a necessary and proportionate measure to protect public safety,” said the Amnesty statement.

‘Shamefully banning peaceful demonstrations’

Over the past three months, cases have swelled of French citizens who claim they have no links to terrorism but have been nevertheless ensnared in the new security dragnet.

Critics have also accused the government of discrimination in restricting the fundamental rights to assemble and demonstrate peacefully.

A week before the start of the 2015 Paris climate change summit, for instance, 24 environmental activists were put under house arrest for flouting a ban on protests under the new emergency measures.

The move sparked harsh condemnations from prominent environmentalists and anti-globalisation activists. “Climate summits are not photo opportunities to boost the popularity of politicians,” Canadian author Naomi Klein told the Guardian. “Given the stakes of the climate crisis, they are by their nature highly contested. That is democracy, messy as it may be. The French government, under cover of anti-terrorism laws, seems to be trying to avoid this, shamefully banning peaceful demonstrations and using emergency powers to pre-emptively detain key activists.”

Alienating aggrieved sections of society

While the house arrests of prominent activists sparked outrage and media headlines, law enforcement abuses of France’s marginalised tend to go under the radar. And that, experts warn, runs the risk of further alienating already aggrieved sections of society.

Home to Europe’s largest Muslim community, France has a difficult relationship with its Muslims – particularly those of North African origin – that has been the subject of much discussion, misunderstandings, national action plans and state inaction.

Activists say the latest security crackdowns have unfairly targeted Muslims, particularly those living in the hardscrabble banlieues – or suburbs – of major French cities.

Barely a month after the state of emergency was instituted, more than 20 mosques and many Muslim associations were searched and around 10 mosques shut down, according to Amnesty International.

‘Use the cat litter’

Reports of police heavy-handedness have increased since the November 13 attacks. In an interview with the Guardian, Reda – a young French Muslim identified only by his first name – recounted a police raid on his home a week after the attacks. “When I opened the door I saw a policeman, with his whole team behind him, pointing a gun at my head. My mother was in a panic,” he said.

As the police were about to lead him out of his home, Reda said he asked the officers to put the toilet back in order, since his disabled mother needed it in a certain state and the young man hadn’t had the time to do it himself. Reda said that a police officer replied, “If your mother wants to use the toilet, she can use the cat litter.”

Tales such as these, whether real or apocryphal, underscore the longstanding suspicions and animosities between the police and youth in the banlieues.

In 2005, a series of riots was ignited by the deaths of two youths fleeing the police in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. The young men were electrocuted when they hid from the police in a power substation. Within days, the unrest had spread to the suburbs of other French cities, triggering debate and a few national initiatives to tackle the longstanding issues of urban development and poor policing in France’s deprived neighbourhoods.

A decade later, there’s little to show for it on the ground, with rising unemployment and disenfranchisement levels making France’s marginalised particularly vulnerable to the lure of radical ideologies touted by fringe groups.

The imposition of tightened security measures that are outside judicial control may only exacerbate the problem, some experts warn. “Terrorism evolved with our societies, but our strategies to tackle it haven’t. We keep dealing with terrorism on a security basis only and it always failed and it always will,” said Yasser Louati, spokesman for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, in an interview with the Guardian.

But with the growing appeal of right-wing politics across France and Europe, Hollande’s Socialist government has been invested in a “tough on terrorism” line – despite criticism from some of his own ministers.

Justice Minister Christiane Taubira resigned Wednesday over her opposition to a proposed constitutional amendment that would strip dual nationals convicted of terrorism of their French citizenship. An outspoken left-leaning politician, Taubira was vocal in her opposition to the controversial measure, which she considered “completely useless” in combating the radicalisation of French citizens.

In a ruling on the controversial provision last month, the Conseil d’État noted that revoking citizenship would have only a “limited practical impact” in the fight against terror. But the government’s move to push ahead with the proposal has sparked criticism that the ruling Socialist Party is more focused on luring support from the conservative and far-right parties than on addressing the roots of the country’s security problem. In which case France may well see another prolongation of its state of emergency, despite the concerns voiced by civil rights advocates and those on the political left.

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