France’s State of Emergency

After threats, or attacks upon a country’s security such as the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, a state will most likely strive to undertake measures to reestablish security and prevent future attacks from occurring. However, the steps a state undertake to do this must be in line with the rights and freedoms their citizens are entitled to under the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which every UN member is expected to promote and protect. After 9/11 the United States attempted to prevent future terrorist attacks by a number of measures. However, not all of them, such as the CIA torture program and NSA mass surveillance program, respected human rights. Fortunately, due to a collected public outcry, the CIA’s use of torture is no more, and many aspects of NSA’s mass surveillance that infringe on a person’s right to privacy are currently under heavy scrutiny. However, the same environment of fear that lead to those programs still lives today.

Following the recent Paris attacks in November by a group of individuals linked to ISIL, France’s President Hollande enacted a state of emergency. This state of emergency gives regional authorities a number of powers such as setting curfews, forbidding public gatherings, etc. However, what makes this state of emergency significant is that it gives authorities the ability to conduct raids and enforce house arrests without a warrant. Without judicial oversight, French authorities have been allowed to conduct anti-terrorism operations with no consequence. This has led to an extensive police presence, overuse of raids, and abuse of house arrests by the French government. However, rather than actually being effective against terrorism, France’s state of emergency has only created an environment in which its Muslim citizens experience trampled civil liberties and are targeted as potential terrorists with little to no evidence. As a member of the UN, France is expected to uphold the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and extend the rights defined within it to all of its citizens. However, France’s extensive use of raids and detention under grounds of state of emergency violates the declaration.

Grey Anderson writes an extensive background of the state of emergency law within the Jacobin magazine, which is best summarized to explain the important role its history plays in the violations of civil liberties in France today. The state of emergency law was first composed in 1955 during the Algerian war of independence. France had a peculiar relationship with Algeria in that rather than viewing Algeria simply as a foreign colony, many French citizens regarded Algeria as part of France. France’s identity became entwined with Algeria’s. In 1955, when Algerian nationalists took up arms against the French government in a bid for independence, France sought to put down the nationalist movement in a way that didn’t recognize the conflict as a foreign war. Doing so would legitimize the Algerian nationalists and go against the French discourse of France and Algeria as one and the same. Instead of using military action, France thus crafted a law that imposed a state of emergency in which emergency powers were given to French authorities within Algeria as a tool of repression during a time of war. These roots give France’s state of emergency today its repressive nature. Rather than effective anti-terrorism measures that respect civil liberties, the French government has recalled this 1955 piece of legislation that was intended to prevent a free Algeria.

While the law that defines France’s state of emergency is over 60 years old, it was recently updated and enhanced in November when the French parliament extended it for three months. A recent LawFare article written by Daniel Severson, a graduate student at Harvard University, explains the recent updates to France’s state of emergency legislation. The new, 2015 law has significantly broader language than the previous, which has played a significant part in France’s civil rights abuses. The old 1955 law stated that a person could be placed under house arrest if they were involved in activities that “prove to be dangerous to security and the public order.” However, the updated law now states anyone may be subjected to house arrest if there is “serious reason to think that the person’s conduct threatens security or the public order.” The new 2015 law also allows for raids without a warrant upon a place a person frequents if there are “serious reasons to think the place is frequented by a person whose conduct threatens security or the public order.” This broad language makes it far easier for the French government to define terrorist threats and react, but it also makes it far easier for the French government to abuse the civil rights of those who are not affiliated with terrorist groups.

According to the Guardian, there have been 3,099 house raids with more than 260 people detained for questioning, and more than 380 people have been placed under house arrest, including 24 climate activists preceding the November Paris climate summit since the establishment of France’s state of emergency. However, the majority of those who have been affected are French Muslims. In addition, The Guardian also claims that of the 3,099 raids, only 4 have resulted in “judicial proceedings linked to terrorism.” It is obvious that most of the raids and detentions are conducted on little to no evidentiary grounds if out of more than 3,000 raids only 4 have resulted in actual court cases. Lack of judicial oversight has led to the French government acting in a dangerous and lawless manner with many innocent citizens being put in harm’s way. For example, in a video a Muslim man describes and shows the results of a French police raid upon his home. His daughter was hit in the neck by shotgun pellets when they shot the door open and his home was upturned. In an interview with Democracy Now, Yasser Louati, a spokesperson for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, elaborates on this video and states that the French police had the wrong house, apologized, and then left. Louati goes on to say that carelessness and targeting such as that seen in the described video has created a sense of “outrage and deep humiliation and complete abandonment by the government” within the French Muslim community. With little to no accountability for their actions, the French government is alienating the Muslim community within France.

The UN Declaration of Human Rights establishes a groundwork of civil liberties for every human being regardless of race, religious affiliation, etc. When a state becomes a UN member they must pledge to uphold this declaration and apply it to each of its own citizens. France, however, has violated Article 3, Article 7, Article 9, as well as Article 13 which deal with security of person, representation before the law, arbitrary detention, and freedom of movement, respectively, with its current state of emergency. If France’s raids and detentions actually resulted in prosecutions after extensive evidence of terrorist connection was found before a raid, then yes, the raids would be warranted. However, when 3,000 raids are conducted and only 4 result in prosecutions on grounds of terrorist connections, something is horribly wrong with the anti-terrorism process. Substantial evidence to justify a raid should be found before one occurs, not sought for during. Lack of judicial oversight has allowed for raids to be ordered with little to no justification, which explains the large disparity in France’s number of raids and number of prosecutions. However, this disparity illuminates the heavy-handedness of the French government on the Muslim French community as French police detain people and raid home with no terrorist connections.

Currently, the French government is seeking to extend the state of emergency another three months. The Prime Minister of France, Manuel Valls, recently stated that emergency powers may have to be kept until ISIL is defeated. Frankly, an indefinite extension of these laws is frightening and signal that civil liberties have lost out to supposed security in France. If the French government truly values liberté, égalité, fraternité and its role as a UN Security Council member, it should immediately revise its state of emergency law and add judicial oversight while specifying the law’s language to prevent civil rights abuses. It is well within the French government’s right to do what it feels is best for the safety of its people, however as a member of the United Nations and the Security Council, France’s current actions are unacceptable.

Erik St. Pierre is a student in the School of International Service class of 2017. He can be contacted at

All views expressed are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Mind or of Clocks and Clouds.