France’s civil libertarians alarmed by emergency powers

Deutsche Welle
8 Min Read

The French government has said it wants to change the constitution to fight terrorism. Civil libertarians say emergency powers are already being used against non-violent activists. Jacob Resneck reports from Paris.

In the wake of last month’s deadly attacks across Paris, France invoked an Algerian War-era law to place the country under a state of emergency. That in itself was not controversial, but the use of the law to restrict political activists has alarmed rights groups.

France not only banned public rallies and demonstrations for the duration of the international climate summit running from November 30 to December 11, it invoked its emergency powers to place more than 300 people – including 24 climate activists – under house arrest without a court order.

Joel Domenjoud, a 31-year-old Parisian social activist, was known to police because he had represented collectives petitioning against the ban on political marches. But he has never been convicted of a violent crime, which leaves him puzzled as to why authorities felt justified in placing restrictions on his movements.

“I’ve participated in an international movement, and in such cases with other people I was accused collectively of violence, but I’ve personally not been accused of violence,” Domenjoud told DW.

Days before the climate conference opened, armed police delivered an edict – which he has no right to appeal – ordering him to remain within his neighborhood and inside his apartment after 8 p.m. He also must register three times a day at his local police station. If he fails to check-in on time or leaves the boundaries of his local district, the punishment is a six-month prison sentence.

France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told international reporters at the climate conference that the government was very selective as to who it targets.

“If an activist, environmental or green activist wishes to move around, of course there’s no problem with that – there are no arbitrary arrests,” the minister said.

Domenjoud agrees that his arrest wasn’t arbitrary: He feels targeted because he helped mount a legal challenge to the government’s ban on street demonstrations.

“I was involved in a lot of protests around the COP21, and I think the fact that I went to court against the government’s order to prohibit protests is one of the reasons,” he said. “But without a trial they rejected it.”

He and several other activists are appealing to the government directly, but he says the police’s expanded powers are having a chilling effect on free speech by restricting the right to assemble peacefully.

“We have to take back the streets, because much of the streets are now commercial places and we have to say protests are the expression of what the people are thinking, and it’s important to show it,” Domenjoud said.

Constitutional amendment?

There are signs the government wants to use these methods beyond the approximate 300 individuals currently under house arrest in the wake of the Paris attacks.

Agence France-Presse reported earlier this month on a draft constitutional amendment that would extend the power of police to place citizens under house arrest without a court order for six months after a state of emergency expires. It would also allow dual nationals convicted of terrorism-related offenses to be stripped of their French citizenship.

Rights groups like the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights have warned that historically governments tend to overreach in the pursuit of security and that democracy suffers.

“We know from experience that such laws when they’re enacted, and even more dangerously when they are enacted permanently into legislation, come as being used as tools against free speech, against civil society groups, against human rights defenders,” FIDH staff attorney Clemence Bectarte told DW. “The threats to rights of privacy, to freedom of expression, [are] always the consequence of enacting such laws.”

That’s led to warnings from even center-right figures like former prime minister Dominque de Villepin, who said that alarmists could place the republic’s democracy in jeopardy.

“We may abandon ourselves to a slope of fear and anger,” de Villepin recently told BFM-TV, saying such expanded police powers could “entrust the National Front with the keys to our country.”

His remarks came days before the first round of regional elections in which the far-right National Front (FN) made unprecedented gains as the largest single party in France.

Front National profits

Emotions continue to run high in the country. And there are signs that the hard-line measures that otherwise might have buoyed the popularity of the center-left Socialist government of Francois Hollande did not.

An exit poll released Monday by Ifop and Fiducial for iTELE, Paris Match and Sud Radio found that 68 percent of FN voters said their aim had been to punish the Socialist government. And 16 percent of those who voted for the hard-line anti-immigration party said they had changed their voting intentions after the November 13 attacks in Paris.

The double whammy of the far-right FN’s triumph in six of 13 regions in the first election round and the ruling Socialists intent on making emergency powers more permanent has rights groups concerned.

France must not fall into the same trap as the United States in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks and rescind civil liberties and damage its democratic credentials, they stress.

“There is the obvious comparison people are doing with the Patriot Act – France having so much denounced the adoption of these laws in the US – and now France doing the same thing 14 years afterwards, which seems, you know, inconceivable.”

In the United States, the New York Times wrote a December 4 editorial criticizing the government’s use of anti-terror laws against peaceful protesters, even as the country grapples with threats from Islamist militants.

“Parliament should also ensure that people under house arrest who represent no terrorist threat are freed immediately,” the paper wrote. “A prolonged state of emergency will only harm the very freedoms the terrorists seek to destroy.”

Whether the electoral success of the National Front will make the Socialist government think twice before expanding the government’s executive powers is an open question. The Socialist government of Francois Hollande has banked on a hard-line strategy for its political survival past the 2017 presidential election. But for France the stakes are higher and more far-reaching than the next election cycle.

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