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France has abandoned liberté, égalité and fraternité
Whatever happened to liberté, égalité and fraternité? Photo: AFP

France has abandoned liberté, égalité and fraternité

Ben McPartland · 11 Feb 2016, 12:09

Published: 11 Feb 2016 12:09 GMT+01:00
Updated: 11 Feb 2016 12:09 GMT+01:00

It's not hard to find the words liberté, égalité and fraternité in France.

They adorn the entrance to public buildings and schools. They are on postage stamps and tax forms.
And ever since terrorists made separate attacks on France's liberté d'expression and the French way of life in 2015, the old revolutionary words have gained a new lease of life.
They were scrawled on thousands of messages at makeshift shrines across Paris, projected onto the side of London's Wembley stadium (see photo), and they were the final words of almost every speech made by the country's triumvirate of "war leaders" - François Hollande, Manuel Valls and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve.
(Photo: AFP)

But ironically, despite the repeated rallying cries, France's founding motto has taken a serious hit. You have to ask whether the values are really realité in the current France.

Perhaps that comes with the territory of fighting a bloodthirsty home-grown terror threat, but many are concerned their liberté and égalité are being sacrificed and yet France won't be left any safer.

What's happened to liberté?

(Liberté, egalité, fraternité = betrayal. Photo AFP)

The stand-out flouting of the principle of liberté has been the extension of the state of emergency and the draconian police powers that go with it.

These powers look set to be enshrined in the constitution for use by any future ruler of France. Who knows, maybe even by Marine Le Pen.

Frustrated human rights groups in France and beyond say this is having a particularly corrosive impact on liberté and yet it will do little to reduce the threat from terrorism, despite what the French government says.

It's been labelled an "attack on democracy" and it had UN experts fretting over restrictions to freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and the right to privacy.

Hundreds of people have been placed under house arrest, thousands of home searches have been carried out without any judicial oversight, and in the cases of most, it seems, without even any suspicion of a potential terror threat.

The right of the French people to demonstrate publicly has also been curtailed in a country where children learn to march before they learn to walk.

(A protest against the state of emergency in France. Photo: AFP)

One of France's leading human right's lawyers Patrick Baudouin told The Local: "The state of emergency, the powers of the police to carry out raids and hold people for four hours for an identity check, the house arrests, the power to seize computers, giving police more leeway to fire their arms...All these measures have eaten away at liberté."

But it's not just the "cosmetic" state of emergency that has rights groups and international organisations in a tizz.

There was also the controversial spying law (adopted last June) that gave the government sweeping new powers to collect and store data without judicial authorization. Amnesty International said France was "a step closer to a surveillance state". 

And after the Charlie Hebdo attacks French courts seemed to launch their own attack on freedom of speech when judges began handing out stiff jail terms to anyone caught "glorifying terrorism", even if it was a case of drunkenly shouting abuse at police or firing off an attention-seeking tweet.

It prompted the irate lawyer of one of the jailed tweeters to say: “Are French prisons ready to take in 40,000 people because they made a bad joke on Twitter?" Rights lawyers labelled the punishments a "kind of madness".

All in all it's been a bad time for liberté and does France really feel any safer?

And then there's égalité

(Photo: AFP)  

The move to strip dual-nationals of their French citizenship if they are convicted of serious crimes against the Republic is severely testing the idea that all French citizens are equal before the law.

Critics again argue it will do nothing to stop terror attacks but also that it will create an inequality before the law between French citizens whose origins are French and citizens born in France but whose origins are from abroad - in other words French citizens from North African backgrounds.

In truth, some Muslims in France might argue French governments have transmitted this message for years.

France's own National Human Rights Commission (CNCDH) said the move was "radically opposed to all Republican values."

"We know full well that this measure targets one group of the population, namely Muslims, and they will feel further stigmatized," said Patrick Baudouin, who is the honorary president of France's International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH).

And if the notion of égalité is looked at from a social point of view then the terror attacks and the thousands of disaffected youths heading for jihad in the Middle East have only highlighted the job on France's hands.

Despite years of initiatives France has failed to end the "social and ethnic apartheid" between the immigrant communities living out of sight in the poor banlieues and the rest of the country, especially in schools.

Don't be surprised if you don't hear many people in these areas championing the benefits of liberté, égalité and fraternité.

Speaking of fraternité

(An anti-Arab march in Corsica. Photo: AFP)

The third founding principle of the French Republic and the one that binds its citizens together is also showing serious signs of fracturing in the aftermath of the terror attacks.

When four million people marched in cities across the country to express outrage at the shootings over three bloody days in January 2015, most around the world hailed the impressive solidarité shown by the French people.

But it appears that march of unity may have been a red herring. Since that Sunday on January 11th 2015 the old cracks in French society have opened up again.

The number of Islamophobic incidents has rocketed since January 2015 and so too has the number of anti-Semitic acts to the point where, earlier this year, France’s Jews were advised not to wear their kippahs.

Muslim prayer halls were recently ransacked on the island of Corsica, where halal butchers were also sprayed with machine gunfire. Pigs' heads have also been thrown at mosques, not to mention the "Arabs go home" graffiti.

"When we marched in January we thought the country was united," said Baudouin. "But in reality the opposite was true. Since November there has been a real cleavage in France and an absence of fraternité."

And all the while the far-right National Front - hardly a party known for promoting fraternité - has profited, romping to its best ever score in December’s regional elections, a result which appears to have influenced Hollande's policy

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Throwing thousands of extra soldiers and police on the streets to protect places of worship doesn't appear to have boosted solidarity.

And allowing thousands of migrants living in mud and squalor in northern France hardly feels brotherly of the French government either.

(Police clear away migrants in Calais. Photo: AFP)

French society on the defence

Renowned French historian Patrick Weil said even though the founding principles have certainly been undermined by the reaction to the terror attacks, he saw plenty of hope.

“The motto of liberté, égalité and fraternité is certainly under threat,” he told The Local. “Because essentially people are afraid after the terror attacks, and the government response, particularly after November, has not been unifying”.

But Weil, who says Hollande should be concentrating on unifying the country,  pointed to the show of resistance in French society to counteract the policies of the government, whether it's the recent street protests against the state of emergency or the courts deciding certain house arrests are illegal.

Whether it's Socialist French MPs, like Christiane Taubira defying their president and voting against his measures or activists standing outside supermarkets trying to drum up opposition on a rainy night.

Whether it's Charlie Hebdo continuing to publish and provoke or perhaps it's the millions of French who simply haven't given in to fear and hate, despite the threat.

“There is a real strong feeling from the people in France who don’t want to see liberté and egalité attacked like this," said Weil.

The historian says only time will tell which side comes out on top. But given that the French PM has warned us that the fight against terrorism may last a generation, it may be a long time before France feels like its motto really fits.


Ben McPartland (ben.mcpartland@thelocal.com)

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