By Ramzi Kassem
August 4, 2016
When, on July 14, Bastille Day, a 31-year-old man drove a rented truck through crowds thronging the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, killing scores and injuring hundreds, France had been in a declared state of emergency for eight months. This state of emergency was renewed shortly thereafter, just days before two men killed a Catholic priest in his church near Rouen.
Since the Bataclan massacre by Islamic State gunmen in Paris last November, emergency laws and powers have been approved and extended three times. Last month, the French National Assembly voted to extend the state of emergency for six more months.
France is reeling. Unaccustomed to such violence, its politicians proclaim the nation is “at war” with terrorists. But should an open, democratic society indefinitely grant exceptional powers to its police and security services? Earlier this year, at the invitation of French and international rights groups, I travelled to France to investigate that question.
As the American representative among legal experts from different countries on this fact-finding mission, I participated in interviews with French government officials, members of Parliament, lawyers, judges, magistrates, police officials, union representatives and civil society groups, as well as individuals who had borne the brunt of emergency measures. Our report found that the state of emergency appears, at best, of questionable efficacy in combating terrorism. At worst, it may compound the problems France faces.
The emergency law gives the government the authority to order house arrests, police raids and bans on public assemblies and nongovernmental organizations, including the closure of mosques. These measures may be meted out without warrants or other forms of judicial approval; for those affected, any recourse after the fact is often limited and inadequate.
Since November, police and security forces have carried out about 3,600 raids on homes. These raids, almost always accompanied by searches and seizures, resulted in only six terrorism-related inquiries, only one of which, according to the Ministry of the Interior, led to a prosecution. In fact, as we heard from police union and magistrates’ representatives, most of these home raids were conducted by narcotics units that used these new powers against suspects with no ties to terrorism. There was evidence of similar misuse in the house arrests imposed on 404 people as of May: At least 24 of those were environmental activists detained in the run-up to last year’s Paris climate conference.
A great majority of those who were placed under house arrest or whose homes were raided were French Muslims, typically of North African descent. We learned that searches were consistently conducted in brutal fashion with little regard for citizens’ rights. Residents related terrifying treatment at the hands of heavily armed, masked men who burst into their apartments in the middle of the night. One woman held at gunpoint during a raid on her home blamed the shock for her subsequent miscarriage. Another told us how she had soiled herself in front of her children because she was forbidden to use the bathroom during a search. Many held under house arrest lost jobs or employment opportunities as a result.
France is home to the largest Muslim population of any country in Western Europe — up to six million people who already face discrimination in employment, housing and educational opportunity. While Muslims constitute about 9 percent of the population, they are incarcerated at a disproportionate rate, making up an estimated 60 percent of the prison population — a rate that surpasses even the overrepresentation of African-Americans and Latinos in American jails. When the French government targets French Muslims with its emergency measures, it reinforces the sense of persecution of this marginalized minority.
Today, many French Muslims and rights groups regard the state of emergency as a public relations exercise rather than a genuine security policy. Through its repressive, overbroad methods, the government is sending a message both to French Muslims, indiscriminately, and about French Muslims to the rest of French society, reinforcing negative stereotypes and hostility.
Part of the larger tragedy unfolding in France is that Muslims are doubly victimized — not only by their compatriots’ hate and government excesses, but also by the killers who do not spare them. The first victim in the Nice massacre was a Muslim woman, Fatima Charrihi; in total, 30 of the 84 people killed were Muslims.
For France to double down on the state of emergency will not prevent these horrors any more than its recent intensification of airstrikes on Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria will. If the purpose is to bolster national security, then the cost of this military operation could be better spent at home.
Indeed, the message I heard from French police officials and magistrates was that they lacked not expansive new powers but the means and personnel to do their jobs under the laws in place before the state of emergency.
Nice, after all, did not involve a novel method of attack; the authorities have long known about the threat posed by explosives-laden trucks. The usual way of thwarting this is with heavy concrete barricades. Yet there was a failure to deploy such measures systematically.
The state of emergency helps French politicians more than it does law enforcement. Riding roughshod over the rights of French Muslims is easier than admitting deadly errors in Nice, better funding law enforcement or dealing with France’s pervasive discrimination and social exclusion.
Of our many interviews, one story stood out because it encapsulated how the state of emergency misses the mark. A Muslim man told us about a raid on his home near Paris. Armed, masked men burst in late at night without offering the occupants a chance to open the door, training their weapons on adults and children alike.
The agents made the homeowner lie face down on the floor, cuffed him, and then searched him in a needlessly harsh, humiliating way. All of a sudden, they hauled the homeowner to his feet and pointed to a picture of a bearded old man on his wall.
“Who is this bearded man?” barked a masked agent.
“Why, sir,” replied the homeowner, “it’s Victor Hugo.”
The man’s teenage daughter was a literature buff; the great French writer was one of her favourite authors.
Like this family, a vast majority of French Muslims aspire to full membership in their society and reject extremist violence, despite rampant discrimination. Rather than extending a state of emergency that serves only to further marginalize them, the French government should address the root causes of alienation among its minority communities. The values of liberty, equality and fraternity that are the basis for the French republic demand nothing less.
Ramzi Kassem is a professor of law at the City University of New York.