The Implications of France’s New Anti-Terror Law

By: Alicia Chavy, Columnist

Photo Credit: CNBC

On October 31, France ended its two-year-long state of emergency, and passed a controversial anti-terror law allowing some of the emergency measures to remain in place. For instance, the new law permanently allows French authorities to conduct home searches and place suspected terrorists under house arrest with limited judicial oversight. While this enhances the French government’s counterterrorism capabilities and operational scope, it could allow further discrimination against already marginalized French Muslim communities. Limited judicial oversight could pave the way for police abuses that could undermine the French government’s efforts to establish effective grassroots initiatives and preventive measures to tackle the current domestic radicalization problem. In addition, the end of the state of emergency potentially reduces pressure on returnees just as the Islamic State (IS) loses significant territory in Iraq and Syria.

Over-extended State of Emergency

On November 13, 2015, several jihadists conducted a series of coordinated armed attacks and suicide bombings at a soccer match, rock concert, restaurants, and cafes in Paris and the surrounding area of Saint Denis, leaving 130 people dead.[i] This shattering night remains forever ingrained in French people’s minds, as this was the deadliest attack in the European Union since 2004, and the largest on French soil since World War II.[ii] As a result, the French government enacted sweeping security measures to counter terrorist activity through a state of emergency. From November 2015 to October 31, 2017, 10,000 heavily armed soldiers were deployed to patrol the streets of French cities.[iii] The police were granted the power to arrest, search, and hold suspected terrorists without prior judicial approval, and the government set up 75 “protection zones” to provide extra security at major events such as the Euro 2016 Championship and Bastille Day celebrations in Paris.[iv]

In the past two years, Islamic State and al-Qa’ida operatives or supporters perpetrated numerous attacks in France, ranging from assaults with knives to vehicular attacks, resulting in 92 deaths.[v] With continuing terrorist threats and attacks, the state of emergency was extended six times. According to Le Monde and The Local, the state of emergency resulted in about 4,457 house raids, approximately 625 confiscated weapons, 646 people taken into custody, and 752 people placed under house arrest. In addition, 998 criminal proceedings were launched following the raids, only 23 of which resulted in prosecutions for terror-related offenses. Nineteen Islamic houses of worship were shut down.[vi] The French government claims that the state of emergency enabled authorities to prevent 32 terrorist attacks, including 13 just in 2017.[vii]

New Anti-Terror Law

With the extended state of emergency set to expire, French President Emmanuel Macron formally signed a sweeping counterterrorism law on November 1. The law reportedly provides the French police the tools they need to fight violent extremism and serves to codify some state of emergency measures, with some modifications. More specifically, the Anti-Terror Law grants permanent powers for French authorities to search homes, set up large security perimeters in case of an identified threat, restrict the movements of suspected extremists, conduct electronic eavesdropped, and identity checks, all without a court order.[viii] The law has also expanded measures to counter and prevent radicalization by allowing the police to close places of worship or other locations suspected of preaching hatred. Yet, judicial approval is required for certain police measures, including searches of bags.[ix] President Macron expects to recruit 10,000 police forces by 2022, with an additional 60,000 reservists standing by. The new legislation also established a new body, the National Centre for Counter Terrorism, to coordinate all intelligence work and directly advise the President.[x] The French government has said that Parliament will annually review the most punitive elements of the new law and that the new powers granted by the law are set to expire by 2020.

Implications of Ending the State of Emergency

The Anti-Terror law provides stronger counterterrorism and operational tools for the French security forces to face the continuing terrorist threats. The end of the state of emergency could be a boon to the French government’s efforts to counter radicalization to violent extremism. The government could launch preventive measures to stop the radicalization of extremists in the early stages by focusing on improving relations between police forces and marginalized French Muslims.[xi] A focus on community policing and day-to-day encounters with local Muslims and immigrant groups in disenfranchised districts can also provide helpful intelligence for French authorities.

Yet, these benefits will not be realized if, as critics fear, the powers granted by the new law are abused to conduct unnecessary house raids, arrests, or searches and seizures based on inadequate or flimsy intelligence. Indeed, Human Rights Watch accused the French authorities of carrying out abusive and discriminatory raids and house arrests targeting Muslims during its two-year state of emergency.[xii] Thus, civil rights advocates are worried that Muslims will be disproportionately targeted by the new legislation. The police’s use of invasive counterterrorism operations could further alienate some already marginalized members of the Muslim community, and may increase the threat and incidence of jihadist radicalization in France.[xiii]

Furthermore, although France is no longer in a state of emergency, the country remains a target of IS threats, especially in light of the group’s recent territorial losses. There are 15,000 suspected radical Islamists on French authorities’ watchlist, some 4,000 of whom are deemed at high risk of committing an attack.[xiv] Just last month, an assailant killed two women with a knife in Marseille while shouting “Allahu Akbar,”[xv] and the French police arrested five people in connection with the construction of a homemade bomb in Paris apartment building.[xvi] Moreover, according to Newsweek, hundreds of jihadi militants have returned to France from Iraq and Syria, some of whom have been detained, and are under security surveillance.[xvii] The additional operational capabilities granted to the police and French authorities are not sufficient to monitor the vast amount of returnees, along with other suspects in France.

The new Anti-Terror Law reflects France’s new normal of prioritizing security over civil liberties. Given continuing terrorist threats, the government says it will re-impose the state of emergency in the case of another large-scale attack.[xviii] This creates a dangerous permanent state of emergency mindset among French policymakers and authorities, and undermines the potential benefits that the new law could have brought in regards of preventing further radicalization. As a result of simultaneously manning newly established security perimeters, conducting house raids and identity checks, and monitoring a large number of returnees, French authorities may find their counterterrorism and intelligence capabilities overtaxed.

[i] The Economist, Two years after Bataclan, France ponders how to fight terrorism,” November, 9 2017.

[ii] Jacques Lefebvre, “State of Emergency Ends, But Effects Linger,” The French Tribune, November, 9 2017.

[iii] The Economist,Two years after Bataclan, France ponders how to fight terrorism.”

[iv] The Local, “This is what happened during France’s state of emergency,” October 31, 2017.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Rick Noack, “France’s terrorism problem divided the country. The election could make it worse,” The Washington Post, April 23, 2017.

[viii] Christian Hartmann, “Two Years after the Paris attacks, France ends state of emergency,” Reuters, November, 1 2017.

[ix] Human Rights Watch, “France: don’t normalize emergency powers,” June 27, 2017.

[x] The Economist, Two years after Bataclan, France ponders how to fight terrorism.”

[xi] Rick Noack, “France’s terrorism problem divided the country.”

[xii] Human Rights Watch, “France: don’t normalize emergency powers.”

[xiii] Rick Noack, “France’s terrorism problem divided the country.”

[xiv] Jack Moore, “French Minister: hundreds of Jihadis have returned from Iraq and Syria,” Newsweek, August 6, 2017.

[xv] Marc Leras and Emmanuel Jarry, “Knifeman yelling “allahu Akbar” shot dead after killing two in France,” Reuters, October 1, 2017.

[xvi] James McAuley, “French Muslims enraged by passage of Macron’s version of Patriot Act,” The Washington Post, October 3, 2017.

[xvii] Jack Moore, “French Minister: hundreds of Jihadis have returned from Iraq and Syria.”

; The Local, “France to halve the number of suspects under house arrest as part of new anti-terror law,” November 2, 2017.

[xviii] Ibid.

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