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.

So how effective are the measures? According to a review conducted by the National Assembly’s Law Commission, there were 3021 administrative searches over the first two months, four of which led to further judicial investigation, and one to arraignment for possible links with terrorist activities. There have been 381 house arrests, many unrelated to suspicion of terrorism; 62 of them have led to court appeals. The number of administrative searches and house arrests has skyrocketed partly because the police have been given the opportunity to conduct operations that would have been illegal under normal conditions. The administrative searches have served, in almost all of the 366 cases that led to arrest, to indict individuals for drug possession (usually cannabis) or possession of firearms (including weapons that are legally owned). The house arrests have been used, among other things, to stop environmental activists taking part in protests – protests which, during the Paris climate change conference, were in any case banned.

Those targeted are often young people belonging to Arab or African minorities, particularly Maghrebis in low-income areas and housing projects. Muslims have been subject to administrative searches merely on suspicion of religious affinity with jihadism, as have Christians mistakenly thought to be Islamists. Restaurants serving halal food, or with a prayer space, have been searched at lunchtimes and had their furniture broken, the official reason being that some of their patrons were suspect, although in none of the cases was any of those present interviewed or arrested. A hostel for homeless women run by a Muslim organisation was wrecked, with no explanation given. A shopkeeper accused of having customers allegedly in contact with jihadists was put under house arrest.

An administrative search usually happens at night. Standard procedure is for heavily armed special forces to break open the door to an apartment, hold the residents at gunpoint, pin adults to the ground, handcuff them, and turn their belongings upside down. In most cases, the police leave without finding anything suspect. Occasionally, they have admitted to raiding the wrong apartment. Yet no compensation is offered for the material damage caused and no psychological assistance provided to the traumatised families. Those placed under house arrest are often required to visit a police station three times a day, putting their job or their business at risk. They are rarely told why the procedure is being used against them, and when they appeal to the administrative court the public prosecutor does not have to provide evidence. Even when the sanction is lifted, consequences remain: neighbours and colleagues have become suspicious. But beyond the searches and house arrests, there are other practices that are less measurable because they don’t appear in statistics. Stop and search is now regularly and arbitrarily carried out in public spaces, particularly in train and metro stations, manifestly targeting people on the basis of their physical appearance. Racial profiling, which is common though illegal most of the time, has become licit and even encouraged by the authorities.

The attitudes aren’t new. Since the 1990s, the obsessive intervention of public authorities over the wearing of the veil, the inclusion of halal food in school meals, the building of mosques and faith-based schools have all been presented as a defence of French secularism (though comparable practices by Christians and Jews have never seemed to be an offence to the national community). But with the events of 2015 – Charlie Hebdo in January, and the attacks in November – the stigmatisation of France’s four million Muslims has accelerated. Even though the government has repeatedly insisted on the need to distinguish violent radical Islam from the peaceful religious practices of the vast majority of Muslims, on the ground it seems that any Muslim is either a suspect or a target.

When in Ajaccio, Corsica’s largest town, a Muslim prayer hall was vandalised on Christmas Day – they burned Qurans and chanted ‘Arabi fora’ (Arabs out) – there was indignant coverage in the media and a unanimous outcry by politicians. But it wasn’t an isolated event. According to DILCRA, the government institution in charge of combating racism and anti-Semitism, the number of cases of aggression against Muslims, including the desecration of their places of worship, went up by 223 per cent in 2015 over the previous year (for the same period, ‘racist acts’ went up by 17 per cent and ‘anti-Semitic acts’ went down by 5 per cent). While these attacks are mostly the work of far-right groups, it’s hard not to see a parallel with the way the police themselves have treated the mosques where they have conducted their administrative searches, breaking down doors, bringing dogs into prayer rooms, throwing around Qurans, and never apologising for the damage or intrusion. It may be significant that, according to a recent survey, in the 2015 regional elections 51 per cent of the police and the military voted for the National Front. No need, then, to mobilise conspiracy theories to link ideology and practices.

The selective application of the state of emergency has consequences that are almost imperceptible for the majority of the population: since their doors aren’t being broken down in the middle of the night, all they see is the reassuring presence of the military in public spaces. Most people, looking away when someone is stopped and searched by the police, may not even have noticed the discriminatory enforcement of the emergency measures, or they may simply prefer to ignore it.

Those who have said that France is being turned into a police state have had little impact in the public debate, because for most people it is business as usual. On 9 February the National Assembly voted to approve Hollande’s proposal that the state of emergency be inscribed in the constitution. But at the same time, as leaked documents from the ministry of the interior showed, a new law reinforcing the powers of the police was in preparation. It is not limited to terrorism but concerns crime in general. It removes the existing legal restrictions on stop and search and authorises the police use of weapons in cases other than self-defence. It gives broader prerogatives to the government-appointed prosecutors and limits the role of the judges in conducting investigations. The official goal is to ‘consolidate in a permanent manner the instruments and means available to administrative and judiciary authorities beyond the temporary legal frame of the state of emergency’.

So not only is the present state of emergency in the process of being legitimised by the constitution, but a substantial part of what it allows is being written into legislation so that it can apply in normal as well as extraordinary circumstances. The terrorist attacks, it seems, have served as a pretext to expand the lawful extent of the use of state force. There has been virtually no protest (it helps that demonstrations are banned). In the weeks that followed the Paris attacks, Hollande’s popularity ratings surged from 28 to 50 per cent, helped by his borrowing of language and ideas from the right and in some cases far right (the withdrawal of citizenship). His personal popularity has slipped back down again, though the popularity of his policies hasn’t: in the latest poll, 79 per cent of people supported the government’s proposal that the state of emergency be extended for a further three months into May. The politics of fear, which all parties seem to deem profitable in electoral terms, have made these exceptional measures more than acceptable to most people, since only a stigmatised and marginalised section of the population is affected. It’s hard not to think, though, that all this will further damage national cohesion. The everyday injustices experienced by the minority – while the majority remains silent or even acquiescent – can’t fail to give rise to growing resentment.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 38 No. 6 · 17 March 2016

Didier Fassin reports the vandalising of an Islamic prayer hall in Ajaccio last Christmas Day as a typical instance of an unprovoked attack on the Muslim minority in France (LRB, 3 March). But he omits a key fact, reported in all the French press. The previous evening, the fire brigade had been called out on a false alarm to one of the Ajaccio banlieues. When the three-member crew arrived, it was attacked with rocks and two of the crew were seriously injured. In Corsica, which is regularly ravaged by scrub fires in summer, the pompiers perform a vital public service. It is hard to imagine anything more anti-social than targeting them for attack.

The Charlie Hebdo murders in January 2015 and the Paris killings in November have even called into question the loyalty of French nationals who are only nominally Muslim to secular, liberal, republican democracy. But hostility to Islam as such (not simply to ‘Islamism’ or ‘Islamic extremism’) is now normal in, for example, readers’ comments in organs as sober as Le Monde, which is increasingly accused of political correctness in its search for neutral reporting. At the same time, there is much soul-searching and even some satire about the political justifications for the continued state of emergency. Fassin’s piece reflected little of this balance of opinion, despite the fact that in the recent regional elections, voters from left and right came together to frustrate the Front National and save the country from what would have resulted, in my view, in a Gaullist coup and civil war.

Peter Lomas
St Andrews

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences