President Emmanuel Macron’s government on Thursday proposed a significant expansion of authorities’ powers to fight terrorism, alarming civil liberties advocates even as defenders said the plans would help keep French citizens safe.
The draft law was introduced after a series of attempted terror strikes in Paris and Brussels in recent weeks and several bloody attacks in Britain claimed by Islamic State-inspired militants. Those have prompted European leaders to search urgently for new strategies to combat terrorism.
Before Macron’s election last month, the politician said he would seek new approaches to fight terror. But he also cast himself as a friend of the Muslim world, raising expectations he would try to build bridges with France’s often-marginalized Muslim community.
His far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen, sought to paint him as weak on Islamist violence.
The changes proposed Thursday seek to wind down a state of emergency that gave French security officials broad powers and was imposed after the November 2015 Paris attacks that claimed 130 lives. Some of those powers would be made permanent, including the ability to temporarily shutter places of worship that promote extremism and conduct searches with fewer restrictions. The draft also strips some oversight powers from judges and gives security officials more latitude to act without judicial review.
“I think we have achieved a good balance,” Interior Minister Gérard Collomb told reporters after a meeting of the French cabinet during which he proposed the law. “The aim is to put an end to the state of emergency.”
Macron and his predecessor, François Hollande, have sought to end the state of emergency, which has been extended several times since the Paris attacks. It is slated to expire July 15, although Macron has asked for it to be prolonged until November. Both Hollande and Macron fear the political blowback if they end the state of emergency only to face another terror strike, analysts say.
The threat against France was underlined on Monday, when a 31-year-old man rammed a car packed with explosives and guns into a police van on the famed Champs-Elysees in Paris. The man was killed in the attack, but no one else was injured.
Critics of the emergency powers say that they have been applied indiscriminately, not just to combat terrorism. Even some analysts who believe the expanded powers can be useful in disrupting terror plots say that the efficacy wears off as militants find new ways to evade detection.
“Emergency powers are effective because they are unusual,” said François Heisbourg, an analyst with the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research. “If you make them usual, they cease to be effective.”
Advocates of the new proposal – which still needs to be passed by parliament – say they have sought to respect civil liberties while improving safety. Some of the changes are less controversial, such as a measure that allows police to cordon off large public events such as concerts where there could be a security threat – something that is commonplace elsewhere in the world.
The proposal “tries to preserve the balance between controlling terrorism and respecting liberties,” said French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on France’s TF1 on Wednesday. “We cannot give up what we are.”
He acknowledged that the law was a work in progress, saying that consultation with parliament, where Macron has a majority, would “enrich the text.”
Macron last month announced the formation of a terrorism task force that would streamline communication among branches of intelligence and law enforcement, an idea praised by terrorism experts.
“There is a favorable window of opportunity now” to fight terrorism, with the Islamic State disrupted in Syria and Iraq, said Gilles Kepel, who informally advised Macron on counterterrorism during the campaign and whose book “Terror in France” was just published in English.
But the new proposal has drawn more skepticism. Some critics say that the emergency powers have been ineffective in preventing terrorism in France, pointing to last year’s deadly Bastille Day truck attack in Nice and other violent incidents.
“The more we militarize this, the more it generates a reaction,” said Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, a terrorism expert at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. Terrorism “feeds on those pressure points. The challenge is to take out the conditions in which this terrorism proliferates.”
One particular concern among critics is a proposed measure that would give police wider powers to conduct warrantless searches.
“For 30 years we’ve been fighting terrorism within the realm of the rule of law,” said Jean-Charles Brisard, a French terrorism expert.
Even though such operations would still be subject to judicial review, it appears that law enforcement needs little proof to conduct them, said Nicolas Krameyer, a specialist on civil liberties issues at Amnesty International France.
The proposal is “dangerous for the rights and liberties of people in France,” he said.
The draft law has set off alarm bells among members of France’s Muslim community, many of whom associate the state of emergency with harsh measures taken in 1955 during Algeria’s bloody war of independence from France.
During the presidential campaign, Macron said that France’s colonization of Algeria involved “crimes against humanity.”
Macron “was very keen on addressing all forms of discrimination,” including those against Muslims, said Marwan Muhammad, the director of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, an advocacy group.
“We were shocked” about the draft law,he said. “Muslims are the first victims and the first targets of the state of emergency.”
Since November 2015, French police have conducted over 4,000 searches and raids using emergency powers, placing about 400 people under house arrest, according to statistics collected by Amnesty International. While no official data breaks down the identities of the suspects involved, Muhammad’s organization assisted more than 400 French Muslims who say their homes were searched without probable cause in 2016.
“We are not monsters,” said Khalid, 31, a French-born IT worker in western France, who said his door was kicked down by least a dozen security officers days after the November 2015 attacks in Paris. The officers pointed a gun at him and woke his 4-year-old son, he said. He spoke on condition that his family name not be used because he fears professional repercussions.
Police said they conducted the raid on suspicions of “radical activity” because he was a member of a youth outreach organization at his local mosque, he said. But he was not charged, and he has since filed a complaint with local authorities.
“Aren’t we French people like them? I was born here. I’ve lived here my whole life. It’s really broken my heart,” he said.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · James Mcauley, Michael Birnbaum