JUST HOURS INTO A TERRORIST ATTACK that started on the evening of November 13, and would eventually claim 130 lives, François Hollande announced that France was reestablishing border controls, and used a 1955 law to proclaim a state of emergency.
This 60-year-old law gives French law enforcement wide and sweeping powers, freeing them from much of the normal judicial oversight. The law gives prefects, the French government’s local representatives, the ability to place people under house arrest, based merely on the suspicion of the intelligence service that they pose a threat to national security. They can also order police raids targeting any place where they think information about terrorism may be found, without a warrant.
Initially intended to last 12 days, the state of emergency was extended on November 19 for an additional three months by both chambers of parliament. During the vote in the lower house, only six MPs voted against the extension.
In some instances, the concrete consequences of the state of emergency border on the Kafkaesque. There’s this man, who was challenging the requirement that he report frequently to a police station (one of the other features of the state of emergency law). Because his court hearing to challenge the requirement was late, he showed up 40 minutes past the time he was supposed to be at the police station. He was immediately detained. Then there’s this man, who was placed under house arrest in southwestern France because he was suspected of being a radical Muslim — except he is a devout Catholic. The police also raided a halal restaurant for no apparent reason.
Since last month’s attacks, there have been some 2,500 police raids, and nearly a thousand people have been arrested or detained. French local and national press are now full of reports of questionable police raids. So outrageous were some cases that the French Interior Ministry had to send a letter to all prefects reminding them to “abide by the law.”
The state of emergency, which was initially supposed to mitigate the threat posed by Islamic terrorism, has been used to target environmental and political activists who have nothing to do with radical Islam, let alone terrorism. Several heavily armed police officers stormed the home of produce farmers in rural France, and Le Monde reported that at least 24 people closely involved with protests around COP21, the Paris climate conference, were placed under house arrest. This includes a member of the legal team of Coalition Climat 21, a well-established gathering of more than 130 organizations and NGOs. The French Human Rights League said the minister of the interior was confusing terrorism with normal civic activities and concluded, “The state of emergency is a danger to civil liberties.”
Yet rather than be regarded as a temporary measure for extraordinary circumstances, the government’s ability to declare an extended state of emergency may soon be written into the constitution. François Hollande, speaking in front of both chambers summoned in Versailles two days after the attacks, announced his plan to modify the French constitution in response to terrorism.
Although some members of parliament were stunned by the boldness of the proposal, most welcomed the news.
A few weeks later, on December 1, the government unveiled the modification it plans to submit to the French parliament. The first measure would write the state of emergency into the constitution, because the 1955 law, even in its renewed 2015 form, is likely unconstitutional. The government fears it could be challenged all the way up to the French supreme court, especially by those who have been raided by the police or placed under house arrest.
The second modification would put into the constitution the ability to strip French citizenship from someone of dual nationality who has been convicted of “crimes against the fundamental interest of the Nation,” or terrorism.
If both changes were to be adopted — which appears likely — it would be the first time that a terrorist attack has triggered a change in France’s constitution, and the first explicit reference to the highly debated word “terrorism” in the constitution.
Ironically, the strong-arm measures put into effect by the socialist government appear, in many cases, to echo those demanded by the National Front, France’s largest far-right party. The day after the attacks, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, said that France had “to regain control of its borders, close salafist mosques,” and revoke French citizenship from dual nationals involved in “Islamic movements.” She also said that “urgent measures [were] needed” to tackle the terrorist threat.
Three weeks later, her party claimed 30 percent of the vote in the first round of regional elections, more than any other party. The National Front might even govern two of the 13 French regions after the second round. Although regional governments in France don’t have direct authority over security and counterterrorism measures, the National Front appears to have benefited in the elections from the post-attack climate.
The main political parties and their representatives have been supportive of both the state of emergency measures and the modification of the constitution, including Marion Maréchal Le Pen, Marine Le Pen’s niece, who may be elected as the head of one of the regions after the second round of elections next Sunday.
“We’ve been surprised by François Hollande,” said Marion Maréchal Le Pen. “There has been some positive reorientation.”