France state of emergency Police in Paris, November 2015. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

France’s state of emergency has suspended civil liberties while failing to stop the menace of terrorism

What degree of protection against terrorist attacks is offered by the presence of armed personnel on the streets? The experience of France, whose militarised police carry arms as a matter of routine and where access to extreme powers by state security actors is underwritten by a quasi-permanent state of emergency in force since 2015, has much to teach us.

Every first-time British visitor to France receives a jolt at the sight of weapon-toting gendarmes in knee-length military boots patrolling village markets or stopping vehicles to check paperwork or issue tickets. In towns and metropolises, the police (national and municipal) perform their functions equipped with revolvers, handguns, rifles and shotguns. And that’s before we get to specialised ‘security’ forces such as the CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité), the general reserve of the French National Police trained in anti-insurrection and anti-riot techniques, or to the assault rifles and sub-machine guns of the BAC, the anti-crime brigade set up in 1994 to tackle urban crime.

None of this visible presence of high-grade weaponry on French streets has done much to prevent terrorist attacks or contribute to an enhanced sense of safety.

A quick search online reveals France’s continuing vulnerability to terrorist actions, even in the wake of extreme measures, including the imposition of emergency powers. In the past five years, particular atrocities stand out: the murder of French paratroopers and Jewish schoolchildren in Toulouse and Montauban in March 2012; the mass shootings at the office of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, with coordinated attacks by an associate of the killers at a Paris kosher supermarket; and, in November 2015, the multiple shootings and grenade attacks in Paris which remain the single deadliest terror attack in French history. It was in the wake of that night of carnage (90 people died in the besieged Bataclan music venue and others in neighbourhood bars and restaurants) that François Hollande declared the state of emergency that, following four extensions, remains in force across the land.

It’s worth emphasising just how drastic the emergency powers currently enjoyed by the French state are. Dating back to the Algerian war of independence in the 1950s and the demand by France’s rulers for additional powers to ‘safeguard the nation’ (including, as it turned out, the power to sanction torture by the military), the state of emergency grants the government powers to ban demonstrations, impose curfews, confiscate weapons, and place people under house arrest. It enables the recruitment of extra police and armed guards, permits the tightening of border controls, and authorises the searching of homes without a warrant.

Following its declaration in November 2015, the present state of emergency was prolonged for three months beginning in February 2016. Three months later, the approach of Euro 2016 and the Tour de France prompted a further renewal. Just two months in, Tunisian-born Mohamed Lahouaief Bouhiel sped and swerved a 19-tonne white cargo truck through crowds celebrating Bastille Day along the Nice waterfront, leaving 200 pedestrians dead or wounded. François Hollande duly issued the state of emergency with a fresh extension.

Much could be said about the negative impact on French society of this draconian body of laws: for example, its invocation to force the cancellation of protests (including those against Hollande’s anti-worker labour laws), or the fact that the thousands of warrant-free searches conducted under its purview have resulted in just a trickle of prosecutions. But perhaps its most spectacular failure – as demonstrated so bloodily on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice last year — has been its inability to protect French citizens from terrorist assault.

Confronted with the shape-shifting character of terrorism, as well as with intelligence failures and other weaknesses within its security system, the French government has also been attempting a more cosmetic approach to counterterrorism. Under Operation Sentinel, more than 7,000 soldiers have been deployed to sites around France, mainly with a view to reassuring citizens and tourists rather than offering real protection (in an interview with Le Monde, one military officer described the operation as ‘a sieve’).

Behind the tough talk and the theatrics of military boots on the streets, France’s state of emergency offers the worst of all prospects: long-cherished rights and civil liberties in perpetual suspension, with no end in sight to the menace of terrorism.

Three weeks into office, Emmanuel Macron, France’s ‘new broom’ president, shows little inclination to break with past failure. Following the terrorist attack in Manchester, he has just announced his intention to seek a further extension of emergency powers – and to devise ‘additional measures’ to counter threats to security.     

Susan Ram

Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.

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