France’s state of emergency

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Didier Fassin writes: The state of emergency that François Hollande declared on 14 November, the day after 130 people were killed and more than 300 wounded by the attackers in Paris, is still in force. It’s worth noting how exceptional this situation is. Neither José María Aznar after the 2004 Madrid bombings that killed 191 people and injured 1800 nor Tony Blair after the 2005 London bombings in which 52 people were killed and 700 injured invoked any such measures. In France, it was only the second time under the Fifth Republic that a state of emergency had been applied to the entire country (the first was in April 1961, after the Algiers putsch, the generals’ failed coup against Charles de Gaulle). ‘France is at war,’ Hollande announced on 16 November, having convened a special congress at the Palace of Versailles to argue that the state of emergency should in due course be written into the constitution and, in the meantime, extended for three months; two days after his speech, 551 of 558 National Assembly representatives voted in favour of the extension. A poll indicated that 91 per cent of the public supported it, the approval rate showing little variation across party lines: 93 per cent among Socialists and 98 per cent among Republicans. Since then, support has remained very high. Why are these measures, which other heads of state, confronted with similar events, did not deem necessary, so popular at large?

The state of emergency, in general terms, gives the executive branch of government extraordinary powers over the mobilisation of the army, control of the borders, limitation of movement and setting of curfews. But in practice it has four main concrete consequences. The police can conduct searches in private and public spaces at any time without judicial warrant. The minister of the interior can put anyone considered a threat to public security under house arrest. State authorities can ban demonstrations and gatherings on the same grounds. Law enforcement officers can stop and search anyone without specific justification. Anticipating appeals to the European Court of Human Rights against the measures, the French government pre-emptively informed the Council of Europe on 27 November of ‘its decision to contravene the European Convention on Human Rights’.

You would think that these restrictions on public liberties and fundamental rights would be unpopular, and might even lead to public protest. In fact, the reverse has happened. In poll after poll, a large majority continues to support the emergency measures. There are two reasons: first, they are widely thought to be effective in countering terrorism; second, most of the population never gets to see the negative consequences. [Continue reading…]

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