Speaking before lawmakers on Thursday, French Interior Minister Gérard Collomb defended the legislation, noting that “freedom and security are not mutually exclusive. When you strengthen security, you don’t take away civil liberties, you preserve them, and sometimes you enhance them.” But some authorities in France have raised doubts over the durability of these liberties under the new law. Jacques Toubon, the head of Défenseur des droits, the country’s independent constitutional authority, called the legislation a “poison pill” that would threaten national cohesion by stigmatizing the country’s Muslim population (since the inception of the state of emergency, France has shuttered more than a dozen mosques and prayer centers). Christine Lazerges, the chairwoman of France’s National Advisory Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH), warned the law could “permanently contaminate the common law” with measures that were meant to be temporary.
François Heisbourg, a special adviser at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, told me the whole point of the legislation is “to provide a device that will allow the new government to get rid of the state of emergency without incurring too high a political price for doing so,” adding that the pressure to keep it in place isn’t coming from security specialists. “The problem with getting rid of the state of emergency is that ... the population loves the state of emergency. The price to be paid would be political.”
“People feel safe when this kind of measure is taken,” Rim-Sarah Alouane, a doctoral candidate and researcher in public law and civil liberties at the University Toulouse-Capitole, told me. “But by institutionalizing the state of emergency, not only are you putting civil liberties at stake, you are not addressing the root of terrorism at all. It gives you the illusion of of security, but that’s it.”
What intelligence officials do want, Heisbourg told me, are extended powers to intercept electronic communication—the kind that allow them to keep up with the evolution of technology. “When [ISIS] uses Telegram or other encryption facilities, you obviously have an issue,” he said. “That to me is much more important than most of the other stuff mentioned in the draft bill.”
Though it is unclear exactly when the legislation will reach France’s National Assembly, the more-powerful lower house, or how much it will be revised before it does, there is little doubt that it will win legislative support. Macron’s République En Marche (LREM) party, with its centrist ally Democratic Movement (MoDem), boasts an overwhelming majority in parliament, and there has been little effort by opposition parties to challenge the legislation.
Though France isn’t the only country to be hit by ISIS-affiliated or inspired attacks (the U.K. and Belgium have remained at high-threat levels following attacks in recent months), it is the only one in western Europe to have established and maintained a state of emergency in response. Raj said this new counterterrorism law could change that, noting that several European countries have already considered implementing or have recently adopted counterterrorism measures to enhance executive powers while restricting judicial controls.
“It’s extremely worrying for a country that is known for human rights,” Alouane said. “It speaks volumes about the culture of fear we have.”