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Emma Ducassé

France's state of emergency: Undermining democracy and fuelling prejudice

Emergency measures have granted unprecedented powers to security services and police [AFP]

Date of publication: 18 July, 2016

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Comment: France's decision to extend its state of emergency following the Nice attack is irresponsible, harmful and undermines democracy, writes Emma Ducassé

French President Francois Hollande's decision to extend the nationwide state of emergency following the Bastille Day tragedy that led to the deaths of 84 people in Nice last Thursday will undoubtedly lead to a further surge in Islamophobia, the violation of individual freedoms and the denial of fundamental rights, rather than curb future terrorist threats.

The French government's efforts to fight terrorism by giving its police force extraordinary powers, has not only proved futile but has contributed to the institutionalisation of a repressive police state which has driven terrorism rather than thwarted it. It shows that a system based on "security at any price" is either worthless or at worst counterproductive.

Fertile ground for the far-right 

Emergency measures not seen since 1961 have granted unprecedented powers to security services and police, and in the wake of the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, are widely perceived as necessary evils by mainstream parties. But these powers are finally being questioned by political commentators, human rights activists and the UN; and rightly so.

Under these controversial laws, the French police can conduct house raids day and night as well as place people under house arrest without a warrant from a judge. Police can effectively target people for their alleged suspicious behaviour, rather than their tangible actions.

This has led to many abusive, discriminatory and often violent raids against Muslims or citizens of Arab or North African descent with no links to any terrorist activity. In fact, evidence shows that police have often targeted anyone "unlucky" enough to be Muslim, or because they came from Syria, Iraq, Tunisia, or in some ridiculous cases because they simply had a beard.

Parliamentary committees have deemed most anti-terrorist activity to be utterly pointless

Furthermore, parliamentary committees have deemed most anti-terrorist activity to be utterly pointless. Since November 2015, 500 people have been placed under house arrest for no real motive. Over 3,600 house raids - sometimes extremely traumatising for children - have been conducted without a warrant from a judge. The vast majority of these were related to drug or weapon possession, not terrorism.

So, the first to suffer under these measures are not terrorists but ordinary French citizens who happen to be Muslim. Political leaders have placed this community in an insufferable position which sees its members feeling the need to justify themselves when acts of terrorism are committed in the name of Islam.

Proposed laws to strip French citizenship from dual nationals that would have made French Muslims or the French of Arab or North African descent feel even more like second-class citizens, have now fortunately been scrapped.

But in a rising context of Islamophobia, hysteria and suspicion, raiding or closing mosques and placing imams under house arrest - however unjustified - coupled with the questionable media coverage of such events and the excessive force employed by police, have contributed to a stigmatisation of the Muslim community as France's public enemy number one, and to a rise in support for Marine Le Pen's far-right party and its racist propaganda.

It has become apparent that the state of emergency has been hijacked for motives other than countering terrorism and used by the French government to push forward its political agenda

Hate crimes such as burning down mosques, abusive graffiti reading ("Arabes dehors!" -"Arabs out!") and physical and verbal attacks against immigrants in some of France's poor housing estates are becoming commonplace and increasingly trivialised when, and if reported.

This dismal picture leads us to question the motives behind the French government's decision to extend yet again its state of emergency without compelling evidence that such draconian security measures are useful.

While some view this extension as simply another of the government's PR campaigns, it has become apparent that the state of emergency has been hijacked for motives other than countering terrorism and used by the French government to push forward its political agenda.

Democracy undermined

Indeed, the decree also lets authorities ban any gathering of people deemed as a security risk. Interestingly, while most celebrations like Christmas markets, the Euro football tournament and the Bastille Day celebrations have been maintained, many anti-government protests - deemed dangerous for national security - have either been banned, shortened or held in such a tense and violent atmosphere due to massive police presence, that people are discouraged from attending.

For example, authorities banned the protest rally due to be held on the eve of the COP21 climate change conference in Paris last November, an event expected to be attended by millions according to NGOs. Some radical environmental activists were even placed under house arrest for having defied this ban.

Other French protests against François Hollande's unpopular labour bill, which makes it easier for companies to hire and fire workers, and which was forced through parliament without a vote, were also provisionally banned.

Patriotic calls by mainstream political parties and in particular the far-right for more police presence and controls will only lead to more Islamophobia

Furthermore, peaceful demonstrators repeatedly complained of police intimidation and brutality during marches that weren't banned. The government also used the anti-terror laws to ban some activists from attending marches.

It is therefore clear that the anti-terror laws are also being used for purposes other than counter-terrorism, though the French government has gone to extreme lengths to convince public opinion that a war is being waged against France and that such measures - however undemocratic - are necessary and legitimate for security reasons.

But let us not forget that terrorism is an extremely complex, global phenomenon and many recent terrorist attacks have taken place in Iraq, Turkey, Somalia, Burkina Faso, or Orlando against the gay community and not just in France.

The attacks in Nice were tragic, but patriotic calls by mainstream political parties and in particular the far-right for more police presence and controls, will only lead to more Islamophobia, stigmatisation of the Muslim community, racist and xenophobic propaganda. Seeking revenge for the Nice attacks by further bombing of Syria cannot be viewed as a sensible solution.

The state of emergency is in danger of becoming the norm and is threatening the very fabric of France's democracy by curtailing people's rights

There is no easy answer to the terrorist threat but France's military interventions in countries such as Mali since 2013, Libya since 2011, Iraq since 2014 and Syria since 2015 to name but a few cannot be ignored either when evaluating the heavy price France and its citizens will no doubt have to pay for its reckless foreign policy decisions.

Against the advice of some of its own anti-terrorist experts, France has chosen to follow in the footsteps of the United States with a Patriot Act of its own. The state of emergency, which should be a temporary measure, is in danger of becoming the norm and is threatening the very fabric of France's democracy by curtailing people's rights: The right to privacy, freedom of movement and even in some cases freedom of speech and protest.

Sadly, France's reputation as a country that prides itself on its famous triad - liberty equality and fraternity - has been tarnished not because of the terrorist attacks but because of the ruthless policies carried out by its own government.

Following the tragic events in Nice, I fear that this state of panic and racist tension will be exacerbated and individual freedoms sacrificed which will only help terrorism to thrive. 


Emma Ducassé is a Franco-British citizen currently working as an English lecturer at the University of Toulouse II, France. Prior to this she worked as a journalist and takes an active interest in French and British politics.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

 

 

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