France has abandoned liberté, égalité and fraternité

The understandable impact of two terror attacks and the pressure on the government to respond to an ongoing threat has seen France sacrifice its sacred founding principles, writes Ben McPartland.

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

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

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.



Why alarm bells are ringing over France’s new law to fight terror

France’s nearly two year state of emergency will soon come to an end but worried rights groups say the French public should be far more concerned about what comes next.

Why alarm bells are ringing over France’s new law to fight terror
Photo: AFP

Rights groups including Amnesty international and Human Rights Watch as well as Muslim associations in France are lining up to condemn the French government's new counter-terrorism bill that is expected to be voted into law next month.

Lawmakers are currently debating the proposed new powers that will come into use when France ends its nearly two year state of emergency in November.

That state of emergency has been heavily criticized by rights groups, the United Nations, and even France's own Ombudsman for being overly draconian, notably by allowing police to place dozens of people under house arrest, and raid homes without consent from a judge.

Critics also said it has encouraged ethnic profiling of suspects, namely France's Muslims.

While the government has repeatedly claimed the powers have helped thwart terror attacks, there is little official evidence to back up the claim.  

For critics, the only positive aspect that they agreed on was that the state of emergency was only temporary and normality would soon return. Or that's what they thought.

'Macron is trampling on the very rights he was elected to uphold'

But now they argue that France is set for a permanent state of emergency, because the new bill simply extends these emergency powers into law.

So when the French president Emmanuel Macron declares an end to the state of emergency in November, they won't be celebrating. Indeed they will be even more concerned.

Amnesty International’s Europe Director, John Dalhuisen, said: “After nearly two years under a state of emergency, France should focus on restoring a state of normalcy instead of seeking to embed these repressive measures into ordinary law.

“Whilst the need to protect people from the types of horrific violence France has suffered is clear, this cannot be achieved by trampling on the very rights that Macron’s government was elected to uphold,” he said.

Benedicte Jeannerod, the president of Human Rights Watch in Paris says the bill crosses a red line.

“For years France, in the name of fighting terrorism, has increased administrative powers while decreasing judicial guarantees,” says Jeannerod.

“But this time by perpetuating these exceptional measures and by bringing into law the logic of suspicion the bill crosses a red line.”

While the bill passed through Senate in July it is currently being debated by the lower house before it’s expected to be voted into law on October 3. 

'Everyone in France should be worried'

The government argues the bill is only focussed on combating terror, unlike the state of emergency, which saw people placed under house arrest who were not terror suspects and street protests banned.

But Human Rights Watch researcher Kartik Raj accused the government of “rushing through” the law and says “everyone in France should be worried”.

“It takes elements of emergency practices – intrusive search powers, restrictions on individuals that have bordered on house arrest, closure of places of worship – that have been used abusively since November 2015, and makes them normal criminal and administrative practice,” writes Kartik Raj.

“It allows prefects to order a mosque closure on ill-defined grounds, and sets out a harsher punishment if the mosque isn’t closed,” writes the Human Rights Watch researcher.

“People whose liberty is restricted to a specific area by a prefect’s order on national security grounds must report more frequently to police stations. Also, these orders can last much longer,” Raj says.

“A prefect can order an area to be locked down for increased searches for up to a month – without an imminent threat. And it expands the areas within which police can search people without a warrant to a 20 kilometer radius of ports, airports, and international train stations – all this in a country where police have all too often engaged in ethnic profiling during such stops.

“One analysis estimates that such extended powers could cover 28.6 percent of French territory and 67 percent of its population.”

Impact on France’s Muslim population

Critics argue that France’s roughly five million strong Muslim population will bear the brunt of the increased police powers enshrined in the bill.

France’s Collective against Islamophobia (CCIF) say the exceptional measures that will allow house searches, restrictions on individuals and closures of places of worship will only increase the stigmatisation of Muslims, which will only serve to divide French society.

So while the new law claims to fight terrorism, critics argue it may only serve to increase the risk if the abuse of powers pushes more young Muslims in France to feel alienated and persecuted, factors the UN say has pushed many individuals towards jihadism.

France’s Interior Minister Gerard Collomb who has had the task of defending the bill insists it is a “true balance between necessary security for our citizens and the protection of individual liberties”.

The French president Emmanuel Macron seems unwilling to listen to the concerns raised and the bill appears certain to pass into law, given his party’s majority in parliament.

However only time will tell whether he has managed to strike that “balance” and France does indeed become a safer country without people’s rights being harmed.

But if it goes wrong then the public and indeed parliament can’t say they were not warned.