Paris is always Paris. The narrow cobblestone streets, crowded clubs, beautiful museums and baguettes all matched my expectations. Until the first group of soldiers passed. It is unnerving – those somber faces and FAMAS rifles remind me that on a cool November night last year, 130 innocent people were slaughtered on these streets. They died in a concert hall, at a café, while watching football – it could have been me or anzone. When the dread washes over and I remember that nowhere is safe, I’m glad to see the soldiers. They are on my side.
The patrolling soldiers steady the nerves of a nation wrecked by terror. But is it working? Are the government’s measures really getting to the root of the problem? The State of Emergency did not stop Mohamed Lajouiej-Bouhel from plowing a truck through more than 300 people at the Promenade des Anglais last Bastille Day. François Hollande enacted the State of Emergency (SOE) on 13 November, 2015, immediately after the Stade de France attacks. SOE provisions amplify the powers of executive and security actors while insulating them from judicial oversight. These agencies may issue house arrests, detain suspects, restrict free assembly, and conduct mass surveillance – all without obtaining a warrant. What’s more, the SOE has flooded French streets with nearly 10,000 regular infantry units. With 6,500 troops now patrolling Paris, Opération Sentinelle is France’s largest ongoing military maneuver.
Despite the mighty show of force, the State of Emergency may be making matters worse. According to Human Rights Watch, the exceptional measures have facilitated only six terrorism investigations against a backdrop of 3,600 warrantless raids and numerous house arrests.
Security actors have exploited the mood of fear with a seductive delusion of safety, leaving the French people vulnerable to both terrorism and government abuse. According to approval polling, public support for the SOE has endured despite Hollande’s place among France’s most reviled presidents. It is unsettling when such an unpopular president can suspend the rule of law for over a year without significant backlash, especially in the country where the national sport is la gréve.
Not everyone has endured the SOE with such calm. In the last year, French Muslims have reported nearly 400 incidents of police abuse. In one incident, police conducted an unwarranted raid of a suspected terrorist and beat out his teeth when he failed to cooperate. Shortly after the scene, police realized they had raided the wrong apartment. One woman’s home was raided: the single mother lost her job, had her name published in the local newspaper on a list of suspected terrorists and suffered virulent peer discrimination. The police later established her innocence. In yet another incident, French police invoked the SOE to preemptively arrest and detain environmental activists and opposition party members during the COP21 conference.
Evidently, executive and security actors under Hollande’s regime have been endowed with unchecked power over the people, exposing how the emergency provisions are consistently used to abuse minorities and political rivals—all without backlash. The heads of more popular French leaders have rolled for less grave abuses of public trust.
President Hollande has set a dangerous precedent ahead of an election cycle where Front Nacional will certainly garner support. What happens if Marine le Pen takes office? Would she act with self-restraint with the unchecked power of the police, intelligence agencies, and military at her fingertips? The French people should not underestimate the momentum of today’s right wing movements. I slept easily the night before Donald Trump shattered my confidence in the strength of liberal coalitions.
While President Hollande is unlikely to hold power through the upcoming election, he can still initiate reforms that will bolster security and improve the democratic deficit. Intelligence reform would significantly improve France’s ability to conduct domestic and international counter-terrorism.
Discoordination in intel
After conducting an investigation into the Paris attacks, Parliamentarian Georges Fenech cited multiple intelligence failures. For example, despite the availability of a nearby special forces unit trained in counter-terrorism and hostage situations, a regular police unit led the counter maneuver during the Bataclan attacks. Bureaucratic discoordination sidelined elite soldiers during their country’s time of most-pressing need; yet these agencies continue to receive undeserved and unquestioned trust.
After leading the Stade du Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam was stopped by the French gendarme near the Belgian border. Abdeslam presented his real identification, and despite his registry in a terrorist database, was permitted to cross the border. It was too late when a separate French intelligence service called thirty minutes later with information that Abdeslam was a prime suspect. This failure in intelligence coordination facilitated Abdeslam’s escape into Belgium, where he remained in hiding for another four months. If a registered terror suspect can escape on France’s bloodiest day since World War 2, what else is slipping through the cracks?
During a crisis, people write their governments a blank check to pursue absolute security. In the panic after the September 11 attacks, George W. Bush led the United States into a 15-year war that remains unresolved. Today, the French government is exploiting the people’s panic and substituting optics for sound policy. Now more than ever, the French people need to take to the streets and demand meaningful reform. For if France fails to hold its leaders accountable, it gives truth to the claims of those who would tear it down.