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Emmanuel Macron’s Anti-Terror Law Is a Throwback to the Bad Days of Colonialism

France has codified draconian security measures that echo some of its worst historical crimes.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

During Emmanuel Macron’s campaign for the French presidency, one of his promises was that the country’s state of emergency—initially declared by his predecessor Francois Hollande in response to the November 2015 Paris attacks—would not become a fixture of French political life. On Tuesday, Macron kept his promise—but in formally lifting the state of emergency, he replaced it with an anti-terrorism law that incorporates some of its toughest elements and makes them permanent.

The new law grants special powers, lifted from the state of emergency, to prefects—local representatives of the French interior ministry—to conduct widespread surveillance and counterterrorism measures, often with limited judicial oversight. These powers include the ability to shut down mosques, raid private property, conduct warrantless stop-and-frisk operations, and restrict movement of individuals deemed potential national security threats with electronic surveillance tags. When the new law takes effect on Wednesday, France will become the only country in Western Europe to establish de facto permanent state of emergency powers.

Civil rights activists and human rights groups fear the law will inevitably unleash violent and discriminatory repercussions against France’s Muslim, Arab, and African populations—a particularly problematic consequence for a country that has struggled to break from its dark colonial history. In fact, there is a direct historical connection between the state of emergency powers and French colonialism: The legislation authorizing state of emergency orders was created in April 1955 to halt the Algerian insurrection at the height of the country’s war for independence. According to Rim-Sarah Alouane of the University Toulouse-Capitole, the order empowered paratroopers in Algeria to raid homes, restaurants, and bars to arrest anyone deemed a threat to the French occupation. Since 1955, the state of emergency has been ordered six times: in 1958, 1961, 1988, 2005, and finally in 2015.

As a candidate, Macron positioned himself as a progressive on these issues, referring to France’s colonial past as a “crime against humanity.” This stood in stark contrast to opponent Marine Le Pen’s hardline nationalist views on Islam and Muslim immigration. But Macron’s rhetorical condemnations of France’s past sins are no solace to French Muslims watching his relentless push to make the state of emergency powers permanent. “It’s hypocritical for Macron to (rightfully) acknowledge France’s human rights violations during its colonial occupation of Africa, all while simultaneously implementing a bill that includes core rhetoric that was precisely used by police and military authorities to commit and justify those crimes,” Alouane told me.

Ibrahim Bechrouri, a spokesman for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), the country’s leading Muslim civil rights organization, said the emergency powers Macron codified into law are clearly reminiscent of repressive policies used against the indigenous populations of former French colonies. The particulars have changed, but the underlying animosity is the same—now targeting immigrant communities largely from these same ex-colonies. Bechrouri added that the way in which the new stop-and-frisk operations would be facilitated recall the code de l’indigénat, or the “Code of the Indiginate,” a series of laws from 1887 to 1947 that reduced the natives of French colonies to subjects inferior to French citizens.

According to French political scientist Patrick Weil, the new law essentially allows authorities to stop-and-frisk black and brown French civilians. This is partly due to an egregious provision that, as Bechrouri noted, makes an individual’s immigrant status enough for police to find probable cause. And unlike the original emergency powers, which targeted specific areas, the new law would extend jurisdiction for stop-and-frisk operations far beyond train stations and borders. This means that police officers could set up “protection zones” in banlieues and other predominantly Muslim communities to carry out stop-and-frisk searches and vehicle searches, and ban some individuals from entry.

It doesn’t help that Macron has failed to quell fears that innocent Muslims and citizens of foreign descent will be spared these indignities. During a special parliamentary address delivered in July 2017 at the Palace of Versaille, Macron said the new law would “explicitly target terrorists to the exclusion of other Frenchmen.” According to Bechrouri, Macron’s promise to exclude “Frenchmen” ends up separating Muslims from their fellow citizens and embroiling them in the logic of the security state. “For French institutions, a Muslim is no longer an individual like others,” Bechrouri told me. “They represent either a terrorist threat or a potential tool to fight against terrorism—whether that is through informant or deradicalization programs, etc. In both cases, it continues to associate Islam with terrorism and creates confusion between those two words.”

Another pressing concern is how the law haphazardly grants prefects wide discretion to label individuals and mosques threats to national security. Strikingly, to be labeled as such, there is no requirement of any link to a violent act, nor even an imminent criminal act. The sheer vagueness of what is deemed a “threat” or “radical” makes it possible to treat normal Islamic practice with suspicion. It is not farfetched to fear that something as simple as praying five times a day, growing a beard, wearing a headscarf, or using everyday Arabic phrases like Allahi ahfedk (“may God guard you”) could be deemed as legitimate grounds to exercise these powers.

The grim irony is that it’s not at all clear the law will prove efficient in curbing genuine threats to national security. “The state of emergency looks more like political theater than an effective measure to prevent terrorist attacks from happening,” Alouane told me. “It gives the illusion that the state is in control and has solutions to the problem when in fact it still has no idea to tackle terrorism.”

The numbers paint the picture. According to the French Directorate of Legal and Administration Information, between the beginning of the latest state of emergency order and June 2017, there were 4,534 searches, 708 house arrests, 46 closures of meeting spaces, and 71 “protection zones” established for stop-and-frisk operations. In addition, the Interior Ministry announced in April 2017 that authorities had shut down approximately 27 mosques since 2015. A small number of those mosques have been permitted to reopen as a result of making concessions to the security state, such as the installation of video surveillance, or changes to religious leadership. Most of the targeted mosques, however, remain closed. Meanwhile, France has suffered over a dozen of terrorist attacks. Others were foiled—including, as Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said in July, seven so far in 2017. That, he said, showed that the emergency powers had to be preserved. But according to Human Rights Watch’s Kartik Raj, the ministry has refused to specify whether these plots were foiled because of those powers. “What isn’t clear, and they haven’t answered this question, is whether those plots were foiled using the powers available to the police under the state of emergency or whether it’s just plain, old normal policing and intelligence gathering,” Raj said.

One thing is certain: These powers have had a jarring impact on French Muslim civilians. In some raids, armed policemen have barged into homes in the middle of the night wearing balaclavas, or even full body gear. One woman said the shock she endured from a house raid subsequently caused her to have a miscarriage. Human Rights Watch documented several abusive raids under the state of emergency, including an instance in which French policemen smashed open doors of a halal burger restaurant in Saint-Ouen l’Aumone before holding frightened customers at gunpoint. After 30 minutes of interrogating employees and searching the premises, the police left without any arrests—or apologies.

There were also situations in which police raided the wrong homes. In a pre-dawn raid in November 2015, “police wounded a sleeping 6-year-old girl when they fired shots to burst open an apartment door, sending wood fragments flying through the room that struck the little girl’s neck and ear,” Human Rights Watch reported. The police later discovered they had the wrong address for the raid. In another incident, police officers broke the teeth of a 64-year-old disabled man of Moroccan origin—also before realizing they raided the wrong home.

Leyla Larbi, a prominent French-Algerian activist and legal expert, fears the permanent emergency powers will also result in the proliferation and normalization of racist speech in media, political affairs, and public discourse, alongside anti-Muslim hate crimes. But what she considers far more dangerous is the potential crackdown on Muslims, Arabs and Africans who think, speak, and protest freely. Like in the 1955 emergency order, the new law grants authorities special powers to impose curfews, traffic bans, and prohibit public gatherings, assembly, and protest. “It is not my neighbor ‘Jean Pierre, the racist’ who prevents me from going to school, having a job, or taking up a hobby,” Larbi told me. “It is the state by its racist laws.”

Opponents of the law are considering challenging it in court or making a complaint before the European Court of Human Rights. Alouane says the international community must join human rights groups in placing public pressure on French lawmakers to nullify the law. In the meantime, young French Muslims are being forced to question their identity. Bechrouri wants them to know the fight for justice and equality continues. “We will keep fighting relentlessly for our human rights and for those targeted by Islamophobia in France,” he told me. “Why? Because it is our country too.”