France's anti-terrorism laws leave Muslims in a state of fear
Hollande looks to extend state of emergency despite growing opposition from human rights groups
Marie was feeding her twin daughters when the raid began. It was a little after 8PM on a Thursday, and she heard a loud commotion outside her apartment in the suburbs of Paris. The order came minutes later: "Police! Open your door!"
Marie panicked and rushed to move her one-year-old girls into another room before opening the door. But the police couldn’t wait. Within seconds, they had broken her door and forced her to the ground. There were about 10 officers in total, she said, and some were dressed in riot gear. The children saw it all from the dinner table.
As one officer held Marie on the ground, the others set about rifling through her apartment, looking for incriminating evidence against her 28-year-old husband, who was still at work. The officers didn’t produce a search warrant, but a paper that they hurriedly forced her to sign said that the raid was carried out under France’s new state of emergency laws. The raid order, obtained by The Verge, lays out three accusations against her husband: he knew jihadists who had been killed, he knew people who trafficked fake passports, and that he belonged to unnamed Muslim associations that promote "religious radicalism."
Marie says the accusations are false. She and her husband are French Muslims, and they regularly go to mosque, but she says they’re far from conservative. She doesn’t wear a veil over her long red hair, and he’s already been subjected to thorough background checks for his job in the aeronautics industry. Neither has ever traveled to the Middle East.
The police eventually tracked down Marie’s husband as he was on his way home and brought him home in handcuffs. The two were questioned in separate rooms late into the night. The officers finally left around 1AM, but not without copying all the data from their smartphones and computers. No charges were filed.
"The officer who was in charge came and said, 'Okay, we’re going to leave now,'" Marie, 27, said in an interview last month. Two weeks had passed since the raid, but she still couldn’t talk about it without breaking down in tears. "And that was it," she continued. "They just said goodbye — no explanation for the how or why."
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Marie isn’t the only one looking for answers. There has been a steady stream of similar stories in the French media since President François Hollande implemented a state of emergency following November’s terrorist attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people. The laws, which were extended for three months in November, give security forces expanded powers to conduct warrantless house raids, seize personal data, and place people on house arrest — all without authorization from a judge. Thousands of raids have been carried out at homes and businesses, and hundreds of suspects have been placed under house arrest on what some say are tenuous grounds. A UN human rights panel, Amnesty International, and other rights groups have condemned the state of emergency laws, but Hollande’s administration has shown no signs of backing down.
This week, the president formally requested that the state of emergency be extended for another three months. On Wednesday, a high court rejected a rights group’s appeal to suspend the state of emergency, saying the country still faces "imminent peril." Next week, French lawmakers will debate a bill that would enshrine state of emergency laws into the French constitution, making it easier for the president to activate them and more difficult to mount legal challenges. Hollande is also pushing for a controversial proposal that would allow convicted terrorists with dual nationality to be stripped of their French citizenship — a measure that has long been supported by far-right politicians, and which prompted France’s justice minister to resign this week in protest.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has defended the state of emergency, saying that the raids are based on "objective suspicions," and that the measures should stay in place "until we can get rid of Daesh," using the Arabic term for ISIS. The laws have also enjoyed broad political and public support; a recent poll from The Huffington Post and iTV found that nearly seven out of 10 are in favor of extending the laws beyond their February 26th expiration.
"They can’t make the Muslim minority pay for their own incompetence."
But there is mounting evidence to suggest that security forces are overstepping their bounds, implicating people with no connection to terrorist groups and targeting others based on little more than mosque affiliation or social media posts. Political activists and protesters have been caught up in the anti-terror crackdown, most notably during the COP21 climate change conference in December, and human rights groups say the laws have had a disproportionate impact on France’s Muslim population — the largest in Western Europe.
"What the government is doing is sending a message that they’re doing something, but they’re doing the wrong thing," said Yasser Louati, spokesperson for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), an organization that provides legal support and consulting services for French Muslims. "They can’t make the Muslim minority pay for their own incompetence in not protecting the French people."
Louati says his organization has received 228 complaints since the emergency laws went into effect, including 57 related to house arrests. So far, eight cases brought to the CCIF have been overturned in court, Louati says, but many of those targeted are still afraid to speak out, for fear of further repercussions. That’s why Marie asked that I not use her real name in this article.
A Paris region police prefecture declined to provide further details on what motivated the raid on Marie's home. The Interior Ministry did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
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Since the November 13th attacks, French security forces have carried out nearly 3,200 house raids using their expanded powers, and 381 people have been put on house arrest. The raids have led to 332 arrests, and 200 legal proceedings have been opened, most pertaining to drug or weapons charges. So far, only four terrorism-related investigations have been opened.
But the laws have been enforced with little transparency, making it difficult to gauge their effectiveness. Clémence Bectarte, a lawyer at the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights, says that aside from announcements about the volume of arrests and weapons seizures, lawyers and rights groups "have nothing else to understand the legal grounds, the factual grounds of these measures."
"We cannot measure the effectiveness [of the state of emergency laws] because there are no facts that would enable us to do so," Bectarte said.
"France has never been a place where civil liberties were well protected."
Media reports have helped fill in some of the blanks. In Nice, a six-year-old girl sustained head injuries after police broke down the door to her family’s apartment at 4:30AM and interrogated her father. (They had the wrong address.) A Muslim man in Toulouse said his wife and two-year-old son were left "traumatized" by what he called a "brutal" raid, when police broke into his apartment in search of weapons. (There were none.)
In perhaps the most notorious case, armed police stormed the Pepper Grill restaurant outside Paris in November, breaking open the door and ordering the room full of diners to put their hands on the table. The restaurant, which is owned by a Muslim man and serves halal food, was believed to hold "people, arms, or objects linked to terrorist activities," according to the raid order. No contraband was found and no charges were filed; surveillance footage of the raid was later posted online. Four days later, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve issued a memo reminding all police prefectures to carry out raids "with respect for the law," marking the first implicit acknowledgment of possible overreach.
France has passed 15 different anti-terror laws within the past 30 years, "each one moving the needle toward state power and away from civil liberty," says Jonah Levy, a professor of comparative politics at the University of California–Berkeley and an expert on French politics. The country has also cracked down on online speech, jailing those who express support for terrorist groups or other forms of hate speech on social media.
"Despite ‘liberty, equality, fraternity,’ France has never been a place where civil liberties were well protected as compared to other democracies or European countries," Levy said.
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France's most recent anti-terror legislation was passed in May 2015, following the January attacks on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris. The law, which has been likened to a "French Patriot Act," allows officials to monitor emails and phone calls of would-be jihadists without court authorization, and forces telecommunications companies to store customer metadata and make it available to the government on demand. Calls for more aggressive legislation have only intensified with the rise of the far-right National Front Party, which has pushed a nationalist, anti-immigrant agenda.
Officials have defended the measures as necessary to confront what they describe as a unique security threat. French officials foiled 10 terrorist plots last year, the interior ministry announced last month, but it’s unclear whether more expansive powers would actually help prevent terrorism. The men responsible for both the Charlie Hebdo and November attacks were on French authorities’ radar, but were dropped either to pursue other threats, or due to poor intelligence sharing.
There are also fears that Hollande’s response to the November attacks could further alienate French Muslims. Many Muslims remain socially and economically isolated from the rest of France, and there are signs that tensions have heightened following last year’s terror attacks. Figures released by the interior ministry this month showed that 400 anti-Muslim crimes were committed last year in France, more than triple the number tallied in 2014.
"The problem is that now they are just sowing the seeds of further radicalization in the most fragile elements in the French population," Louati said. "Think about the children who hid during these raids, who saw their mothers humiliated, their fathers being violently handcuffed to the ground, their apartments completely trashed by the police."
Marie's daughters are still too young to understand what happened the night their home was raided, and she hopes they won’t remember it when they’re older. But she said they’re more restless following the incident, and are more difficult to put to sleep. One of the twins now cries uncontrollably whenever there are more than a few people in their living room.
Marie is still struggling with the trauma, too. "I’m afraid to be at home," she said. "The slightest shut of a door, the slightest noise — it stresses me, it makes me panic."
She's also worried that the raid may cause problems for her husband at work, and still has no idea where the data seized from their computers and phones ended up. The family has since hired a lawyer and filed a complaint in French court, seeking damages for what Marie describes as a baseless invasion of her home.
"They can’t just break into our lives and turn everything upside down," she said. "I need to know that this won’t happen again."