French Muslims ‘concerned and scared’ by draconian anti-terror bill
Muslims expressed concern about what they consider draconian counterterrorism laws that legally enshrine many of France’s state of emergency powers, amid fears that the measures blur the line between freedom and security.
“French Muslims are highly concerned and scared because for two years they have been under the microscope of the French state and now these measures are no longer temporary. They are permanent,” said Yasser Louati, French human rights activist and co-founder of the Comité Justice et Libertés pour Tous.
The powers legally allow French police to raid homes and place suspects under house arrest without a judge’s order, give police the power to carry out on-the-spot identity checks and allow officials to close mosques deemed to be provoking violence, hatred or discrimination.
Emergency powers have been in place in France since November 2015 when the Islamic State (ISIS) carried out attacks in Paris that killed 130 people. ISIS also claimed responsibility for the stabbing to death of two women October 1 at a train station in Marseille, bringing the number of people killed in attacks in France to 241 since January 2015.
The bill passed 415-127 with 19 abstentions in the lower house of French parliament, facing little resistance after having been strongly supported by French President Emmanuel Macron.
A final vote, smoothing over differences between a similar bill passed by the French Senate, is expected this month with most of the security provisions expected to stand. The new counterterror law would replace the state of emergency, expected to end November 1.
The public also seemed to back the bill. A recent Fiducial/Odoxa poll indicated that 57% of respondents said they supported the bill and 89% agreed it would improve security. Nearly two-thirds of those asked, however, acknowledged it would undermine freedoms in France.
Many French Muslims and human rights groups warned that the new anti-terror laws set a dangerous precedent.
“What was problematic and exceptional will now become problematic and normal. There is no coming back from this,” Marwan Muhammed of the Collective Against Islamophobia (CCIF) in France said in a statement.
French human rights activist Yasser Louati warned that the measures opened could lead to flagrant rights violations by the government.
“It means that based on mere suspicion, not proof or facts before a court of law, any person can be detained, any place of worship can be shut down, any activist can be criminalised and prosecuted for supporting ‘dangerous ideas.’ And who decides what is dangerous? The state,” he said.
“The law grants the state overwhelming powers without any accountability.”
Louati’s warnings were echoed by other French and international human rights activists.
“The concentration of powers in the hands of the executive and weakening of judicial oversight is not a new characteristic of France’s counterterrorism efforts,” said Benedicte Jeannerod, France director for Human Rights Watch, “but the normalisation of emergency powers crossed a new line.”
Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the UN special rapporteur on the protection of human rights, sent a letter to the French government prior to the vote pointing to the flaws in the legislation, including that it increased “concerns that the powers may be used in an arbitrary manner.”
She said the legislation represented a “serious” threat to the protection of rights in France, both specifically in terms of the fight against terrorism and more broadly.
French officials dismissed the concerns, asserting that authorities needed the additional security measures to keep people safe from terrorism.
“The threat level in France is extremely high,” said Interior Minister Gérard Collomb. “We are still in a state of war, even if [ISIS] has suffered some military defeats,” he added.
He denied that the new counterterror law opened the door for violations.
“Lawmakers realise that today’s threat is serious and that we must protect ourselves against terrorists. This must be done in a way that balances security and freedom,” he said after the vote.
Mahmud el-Shafey is an Arab Weekly correspondent in London.