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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.

TERRORISM

FOCUS: Terror-weary French choose security over sacred liberté

France is proud of its human rights traditions -- but after a wave of jihadist attacks few are standing in the way of a new anti-terror law that campaigners say erodes freedoms.

FOCUS: Terror-weary French choose security over sacred liberté
Photos: AFP

Backed overwhelmingly by MPs in parliament's lower house on Tuesday, the law makes permanent elements of the state of emergency enacted after the 2015 Islamic State attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead.

Without seeking permission from a judge, authorities will be able to limit the movements of suspected jihadist sympathisers, close places of worship
accused of condoning terror, and carry out more on-the-spot identity checks.

After several more Islamist assaults, President Emmanuel Macron's government has been able to push the law through with minimal fuss — much to
the dismay of rights campaigners.

“There is a numbness of public opinion with regard to the defence of our liberties, a numbness that gets renewed with every terrorist attack,” said
lawyer Emmanuel Daoud, a member of the International Human Rights Federation.

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The latest bloodshed came last weekend when 29-year-old Tunisian Ahmed Hanachi stabbed two young women to death in Marseille before he was killed by anti-terror troops.

It brought to 241 the number killed by suspected jihadists on French soil since 2015, in major attacks including the truck assault in Nice and the
shooting at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

The new law — expected to come into force on November 1 — exposed major differences in parliament, with hard-left MPs urging it to be scrapped and
rightwingers pushing for even tougher measures.

But most citizens appear to back the changes: 57 percent approve of the bill, according to a poll published by Le Figaro newspaper last week, even if 62 percent think it will reduce their freedoms.





Environmentalists' squat raided

“A huge majority of French people do not feel affected by the state of emergency and its implications,” said Nicolas Hervieu of the rights research
centre at Nanterre University.

The state of emergency has been extended six times, partly to protect major events such as last year's football European Championships hosted by France and this year's presidential elections.

It is the longest state of emergency in France since the 1954-62 Algerian war.

Authorities have carried out 4,300 searches and put 600 people under house arrest since November 2015, according to the interior ministry — sometimes in questionable circumstances.

In late 2015, “an environmentalists' squat was searched by dozens of police,” recalled Raphael Kempf, lawyer for the activists targeted in the
operation.

“There was absolutely no link with terrorism.”

Interior Minister Gerard Collomb has argued France cannot go on under a state of emergency forever, calling the new law a “lasting response to a
lasting threat”.

And proponents have argued that the legislation is designed solely for tackling the terror threat — not for launching raids on eco-warriors.

Critics in France and beyond, however, are not convinced.

“The normalisation of emergency powers has grave consequences for the integrity of rights protection in France, both within and beyond the context of counter-terrorism,” UN human rights expert Fionnuala Ni Aolain warned.

France has progressively tightened its legal arsenal to tackle terror threats since 2012 with around 10 different laws, leading Macron's predecessor
Francois Hollande to claim police had all the powers they needed before he left office in May.

Speaking about the first state of emergency declared in November 2015, Macron himself said it was justifiable “only because it is temporary.”

Lawyer Daoud expressed regret that campaigners have not managed to “spark dialogue and debate” over the changes, with citizens apparently willing to accept tighter limits on liberties in the name of security, after two years of bloodshed.

“It's an unprecedented decline in our public and private freedoms,” he said.

“If a democracy as old as this deals with the conflict between liberty and security in this way, in casting aside all the principles which govern our
penal procedures, there is something to worry about in Europe and beyond.”

by AFP's Marie Wolfrom