PARIS — The French Parliament on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a controversial national security bill that significantly expands the state's power to fight terrorism, although critics say it poses a historic threat to civil liberties.
At the behest of President Emmanuel Macron, the new legislation will extend police powers in an attempt to stop a wave of terrorist violence that has claimed 239 lives in France since 2015. As recently as Sunday, a man — who the Islamic State later claimed was a “soldier” of the group — fatally stabbed two women at a train station in Marseille. On Monday, police arrested five people in connection with a homemade bomb in a Paris apartment building.
Since the day after terrorist attacks killed 130 people in Paris in November 2015, France has been under an official “state of emergency,” a temporary regime of heightened security measures that have given local police and administrative authorities heightened powers to arrest and detain suspects without judicial oversight. The anti-terrorism laws approved Tuesday will make many of these special provisions permanent.
Under the new legislation, French police will be able to conduct home searches and place suspects under house arrest, with limited involvement by the courts. The law will enshrine a version of stop-and-frisk policing, and local authorities will be empowered to close “places of worship in which are disseminated the writings, ideas or theories that provoke violence, hatred and discrimination.”
Human rights activists and legal scholars immediately decried Macron's new law, which many likened to a French version of the U.S. Patriot Act. In late September, two United Nations officials sent a strongly worded letter to the French government, denouncing the "many restrictions to fundamental liberties" that passing the law would entail.
On a practical level, most critics were quick to point out that the measures in Macron’s bill have failed to prevent any of the numerous terrorist attacks that followed the 2015 assault on Paris — including a deadly truck rampage in Nice and the murder of Jacques Hamel, a small-town priest, in July 2016. All of these occurred under the state of emergency.
The principal effect of Macron’s new law, critics said, probably will be to legally enshrine de facto discrimination against French Muslims, the country’s largest minority.
According to the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), a large advocacy organization committed to fighting discrimination, earlier forms of the same security provisions have affected the Muslim community disproportionately.
Since the imposition of the state of emergency in November 2015, authorities have carried out more than 4,000 warrantless searches of French homes and placed more than 700 people under house arrest.
According to CCIF data, roughly 100 of those put under house arrest were Muslims. The French government does not keep official statistics on race, religion or ethnicity, but independent estimates say Muslims account for 7 to 9 percent of France’s population.
“What was problematic and exceptional will now become problematic and normal,” CCIF Director Marwan Muhammad said in an interview.
For some legal experts, Macron’s new law recalls a dark chapter in France’s colonial past.
"This is the first time since the age of de Gaulle that French law will enshrine a provision that will de facto target French minorities," said Patrick Weil, a French constitutional scholar and a leading historian of French immigration. Charles de Gaulle headed a provisional postwar government from 1944 to 1946 and served as president of France from 1959 to 1969.
"It really is the most regressive attack on minorities since 1944, when de Gaulle abolished the Code de l'Indigénat," he said, referring to France's infamous colonial system of justice, originally from the late 19th century, which created an inferior legal status for subjects in North Africa, West Africa and Southeast Asia.
Furthermore, the emergency powers that Macron has now enshrined into law were created in that colonial context.
France first adopted emergency powers in 1955, when the government sought “sharp, severe repercussions against Algerians” to prevent unrest across the Mediterranean, said Benjamin Stora, a leading expert on France’s colonial Algerian history.
During the Algerian war that followed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, these same emergency powers figured in some of the most violent episodes in modern French history.
In what was dubbed the Paris massacre of October 1961, French police killed at least 200 Algerian protesters gathered at the Seine River — nominally for violating a curfew under the emergency laws. The French government acknowledged the episode only in 1998, and the full number of victims remains unknown.
“The French today? They don’t know that history,” Stora said. He noted, however, that many of the terrorists implicated in recent attacks come from families that arrived in France as a result of decolonization.
According to Muhammad, the anti-discrimination activist, many French Muslims are well aware of the history of these special powers and see their official enshrinement in French law as a sign from the government that Muslims here matter less than other citizens.
“There is no coming back from this,” he said.
Late Tuesday afternoon, the new anti-terrorism law passed in the lower house of the French Parliament with 415 of 577 total votes. Macron's administration immediately celebrated the result. Interior Minister Gérard Collomb wrote on Twitter that the law would bring "better tools" to "better protect the French" from "a persistent threat."
Others were less sanguine. "Macron has officially discredited France as a country of human rights and [the] rule of law," Yasser Louati, a prominent French human rights activist, wrote in a statement. "Now stop lecturing other countries."