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

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Why alarm bells are ringing over France’s new law to fight terror
Photo: AFP
15:18 CEST+02:00
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.

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.

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