On November 1, 2017, the state of emergency ended in France. After the November 2015 terrorist attacks, the parliament approved this avatar of ‘state of siege’ and reinstated it six times for nearly two years. Yet, lifting the state of emergency does not reflect the resumption of what was previously perceived as the ‘normal’ state of the Republic. A month before the lifting, parliament voted on a anti-terror law that compromises the spirit of the Republic, although the French continue to perceive their country as the home of human rights.
The context of repression
The new bill, passed on October 3, 2017, seeks to adjust historically and culturally significant laws to allow for the preventive action of counter-terrorism. Prior to this measure, the rule of law guaranteeing individual rights presented loopholes, which could have been used in the defense of a terrorist in the courts. Counter-terrorist actions, such as the search of premises or judge approval before repressive intervention, had thus far been strictly framed in French law. Now, the minister of Interior has been granted more powers to support police pre-emptive action. He may define security zones where there is a ‘threat’ even if vaguely defined. Furthermore, freedom of circulation (individuals or vehicles) may be restricted, as search warrants are granted without condition. If the public authority does not have enough evidence to prosecute suspects on charges of terrorism, the minister may impose measures of confinement, such as restricted residence and daily checks with the district police. In addition, with the prior judicial approval, the ‘préfet’, or representative of the state in general districts (‘département’), is able to authorize the search of premises called ‘perquisitions’ (the law uses the euphemism of ‘visit’ instead). Finally, the ministry of Interior can now also shut down mosques, if the imam is suspected of inciting acts of terrorism.
The bill easily passed in the House of Representatives. As since the legislative elections of June 2016, the new administration of President Emmanuel Macron has enjoyed a majority in the lower chamber. The political and social context has helped shape this majority. Since 2015, more than 240 victims of terrorist attacks have died and the right-wing parties, close to the current majority, had long advocated the restriction of freedom for the sake of security. The last attack, where two women had their throats cut in the train station of Lyon on October 1, 2017, was followed two days later by the passing of the measures for preventive action. Legislators adopted the bill by a broad margin of 415 to 127. After the vote, Gérard Collomb, the minister of Interior, reiterated the overall purpose of the bill: “today’s threat is very serious and we must protect ourselves against terrorists,” adding, “[this bill] will help protect the French people.”
The current government, aware of the cross-party interest in this matter, must also justify to the public that the counter-terrorism response is sufficient to weaken or subdue the threat. In light of this demand, the ministry of interior regularly announces its successes in unfolding terrorist plots. On September 12, 2017, when Gérard Collomb presented the anti-terrorist laws, he emphasized that 12 planned attacks had been intercepted since January. Yet, it remains to be seen if the recent legal measures are effective forms of counter-terrorism, or whether they serve more effectively as a communication strategy by the government to prove accountability.
A threat… to the Muslim community?
The debate of security vs. freedom is not new in France, but it serves as a platform for what distinguishes France from its Western partners in this discourse. Taking parallel measures against terrorism, over the last 15 years a series of 12 laws aiming to reinforce national security have been passed in the French parliament. However, France differs from its Western allies in the fight against terrorism first by the number of attacks on its soil, and second, by nature of the demographics of its population. Between March 2012 (when Mohamed Merah assassinated twelve people in the Toulouse and Montauban shootings) and October 2017 (when Ahmed Hanachi assassinated two women in Lyon) almost 20 attacks occurred, peaking in 2015. These attacks have brought to the foreground of political discourse the latent fact that Muslims in France represent 10 percent of the overall population. Their integration in French society has posed a cultural and socio-economic problem for decades surfacing every few years in serious and violent protest that cripples the central cities of the country. The French communities from North African origins face racism, socio-economic marginalization and physical segregation in the banlieues, paving the way for a socially destructive form of communitarianism. Perceived as second-class citizens, some, particularly youth who feel at an economic disadvantage as well as culturally unwanted and alien, are tempted by radical Islam. The fact that most of the terrorists, who have committed attacks in France, were born and raised in France, or have lived in France for a long time, is therefore no great surprise and an ominous signal of urgency.
If anti-terrorist bills met little resistance from the public at large, it is because they mainly target the Muslim community. On a daily basis, racial profiling, or ‘contrôle au facies’ have gained momentum. The question at hand, in light of years of alienation of a sector of the citizenry of the Republic, is whether the recent measures are effective counter-terrorism tactics enforcing a forward looking national strategy, or whether they are further installments of marginalization that will widen the gap between the French from North-African origins and the rest of the population.
The review of the law rather than an addendum for a transitional state of emergency leads to a general conviction that internal insecurity and the peril of uncertainty in national identity have become a permanent state. Policy makers in support of counter-terrorism measures acknowledged that the situation in November 2015 was serious enough to suspend various rights at least during the preliminary stages of terrorism investigations. The new law, however, carves in stone a distinction between individuals: those citizens who have inalienable rights by virtue of their identification with the values of the French Republic and those whose rights are compromised for having followed an extremist path and unraveled a nation. The new law gives a pervasive impression that suspicion replaces evidence, a cornerstone of written law in the West. In practice, an individual considered ‘dangerous’ will now be subject to repression and/or legal action. But how can a suspect defend him or herself? In a fair judicial system, an individual is prosecuted because he/she violates the law, and most importantly, there is evidence of the infraction. However, in the case of a ‘dangerous’ individual, how can the perception of danger be determined as the foundation for punishment under the law? In other words, how can the law reverse the burden of proof, meaning, how can the law force an individual to prove that he/she is not dangerous before danger is encountered?
The combination of the Muslim social issues and the implementation of the new philosophy of law will have an inevitable as well as a negative impact on the French Muslim community, invariably unheralded as diverse and fluid. In effect, the tradition of secularism, keeping faith outside the realm of the public domain, undergoes the risk of not being applied any more. Religion becomes a marker that jeopardizes the concept of nation itself: Muslims will be seen as a community different from the French community. The suspicion will be permanent exacerbating tensions instead of finding proper solutions for integration.