Wednesday

17th Jul 2019

France debates security changes in constitution

  • Introduction of emergency measures in constitution follows the terrorist attack in Paris on 13 November (Photo: Eric Maurice)

The French government will on Wednesday (23 December) present a bill to inscribe new security provisions into the constitution. But many fear it could harm civil liberties.

The bill gives details on what happens when a state of emergency is declared, amid questions on the efficiency of existing counter-terrorist measures.

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  • Hollande announced the modification of the constitution in an address to parliament (Photo: French presidency)

It explains in which circumstances a state of emergency can be declared and what kind of measures can be taken. So far, the French constitution only says that the government can declare it, leaving details to a law voted in 1955.

The new article introduced in the constitution will allow the government to declare a state of emergency in case of "immediate danger resulting from serious breach of public order" or in case of "events presenting, by nature and gravity, a characteristic of public calamity.”

The duration of the state of emergency will be fixed by law.

Exceptional measures, such as house arrests or administrative searches, will be allowed for six months after the end of the state of emergency.

'Adequate means'

The revision of the constitution was announced by president Francois Hollande in an address to parliament on 16 November, three days after the Paris attacks which killed 130 people and injured 350.

A 12-day state of emergency was imposed on the night of the attacks and was later extended for three months.

In his address to deputies and senators, Hollande said he wants to give the state "adequate means to take exceptional measures for a certain amount of time, without having recourse to a state of siege and without compromising the exercise of public liberties."

Putting more detail on the state of emergency into the constitution would guarantee that no government would go too far in the implementation of exceptional measures, Hollande’s government says.

But critics say that inscribing emergency measures in fundamental law creates a risk of permanent exception.

Implicit in the debate is the fact the far-right National Front is a rising force in French politics and could one day access power and have far-reaching tools at its disposal.

But the debate is also about how effective the measures taken under the state of emergency actually are, and whether infringement on public liberties is compensated by increased security.

There were 2,898 administrative searches since the state of emergency was declared on 13 November, and 384 people have been put under house arrest, French authorities say. They also found 443 illegal weapons been found, including 41 weapons of war.

Only three investigations

But the police action prompted few prosecutions on terrorist charges.

Out of the 488 related cases opened, only "25 infractions in relation to terrorism" were recorded, mainly for justification of terrorist acts, according to French media. Special anti-terrorist prosecutors have opened only three investigations, with just one person charged.

The majority of the other cases are based on illegal arms, drug trafficking, counterfeiting, or trafficking of stolen goods.

On Tuesday, the interior minister said that an attack was foiled last week in Orleans, in the center of France and that is was the 10th plan foiled in two years.

But in a statement published on Tuesday (22 December), human rights NGO Amnesty International said that "there is a very real risk that the rights of the wider population are getting ensnared in a net supposed to be designed to identify only those posing a genuine threat.”

“Declaring a state of emergency in situations where there is a ‘threat to the life of the nation’ such as the Paris attacks is one thing, but entrenching emergency measures to counter more vaguely defined threats is another,” said Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty's deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, on the government bill.

Amnesty, as well as French NGOs and media, have reported incidents of people put under house arrest in an abusive way and of police raids conducted in a violent manner. Closures of some mosques also proved controversial.

Fault line

In his address to parliament, Hollande said his government would strip terrorists with double citizenship, "including those who were born French,” of their French citizenship. But the measure will be dropped from the bill to be presented on Wednesday.

The Council of State, which examine laws before they are presented, said the measure could create an "excessive and disproportionate breach of rights" of a category of French citizens.

Many in Hollande's center-left and left-wing majority are against this measure, which the right and far-right have been asking for.

Stripping citizenship from terrorists was a condition for the centre-right opposition to support the modification of the constitution, which needs a three-fifths majority in the parliamentary congress, a joint session of both houses.

National unity over security and the fight against terrorism has been fragile since the November attacks, especially in the campaign for regional elections in early December, in which the National Front did well.

Fifteen months before the presidential election, followed by legislative elections, the issue will remain a political fault line.

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