French civil liberties and the ‘spirit of sacrifice’

With a state of emergency in place and surveillance increasing, how much will the French accept in the name of security?

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A man buys fruit at the Marche Barbes, the outdoor market located in the 18th arrondissement of Paris as normal life resumes in the area on November 18 [Photo by Frederic T Stevens/Getty Images]

On November 14, the day after the attacks on Paris that left 130 people dead and as some of the suspected attackers remained at large, President Francois Hollande declared a nationwide state of emergency, approving warrantless searches and the sealing of the country’s borders.

Less than a week later, he asked France’s two houses of parliament to support an extension of emergency measures from the usual 12 days to three months, citing exceptional circumstances.

He called for a “spirit of sacrifice” in the name of security, before claiming that the April 3, 1955, law governing the state of emergency – created in the context of the Algerian war, when riots in the suburbs shook the capital – was insufficient to deal with “the kind of technologies and threats that we face today”.

France approved and adopted the extension, with the new laws giving sweeping powers to the police.

Under the rule, which lasts until February, warrantless searches of electronic devices are allowed; those convicted of terrorism-related crimes or offences punishable by 10 years or more imprisonment must submit to a decade of electronic surveillance after his or her sentence has ended; and websites deemed to support or incite terrorism can be blocked without the intervention of a judge.

France’s main press freedom organisation, Reporters Without Borders, welcomed one silver lining: the elimination of media controls from the state of emergency law.

“As well as imposing controls on the media, the law [had] allowed the police to search the offices of journalists, judges and elected officials without having to request permission from a court. This provision has also been eliminated,” the group said in a statement, adding that it would continue to monitor media freedom issues during the state of emergency.

Other rights groups, however, have criticised alleged press freedom abuses since the law was enacted, and laid out their fears. The Index on Censorship said it poses a “threat to press freedom”, citing the recent cancellation of a regular radio segment by journalist Thomas Guenole. Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, made an impassioned plea to protect encryption.

‘I have nothing to hide’

On November 14, the day after the attacks on Paris, President Francois Hollande declared a nationwide state of emergency, approving warrantless searches and the sealing of the country's borders. Days after, the country approved and adopted an extension with new laws giving sweeping powers to the police [AP Photo/Francois Mori] 
On November 14, the day after the attacks on Paris, President Francois Hollande declared a nationwide state of emergency, approving warrantless searches and the sealing of the country’s borders. Days after, the country approved and adopted an extension with new laws giving sweeping powers to the police [AP Photo/Francois Mori] 

But while some fear that freedom of speech and some activists and members of the Muslim minority are at risk under the law, others are ready to accept any surveillance measures the government says are needed to ensure the country’s security.

“I think I want so hard to help the government to find potential terrorists that I accept this reality,” says Alice Rampelberg, a Parisian mother of one who lives a stone’s throw from the Bataclan concert hall where 89 people died on November 13. “I know I have nothing to hide so, just because I know it is not going to last, I accept it even if I don’t really like the idea.”

Another Parisian, a first-generation immigrant to France who requested anonymity, also accepted the extraordinary measures with resignation.

“Normally, I would have been against such measures. Normally, I’m even against CCTV cameras. I think [they’re] a breach of citizens’ liberté de circulation [freedom of movement],” she explains. “But that is normally, in a normal democracy, where young people are not slaughtered in the streets by their own compatriots, sent to death by a fanatical sect.”

And with several events and festivities coming up, some believe such measures are necessary.

“So after the attacks, because of COP21, because of Christmas and New Year’s Eve, because of the one-year anniversary of [the] January attacks, because of possible wannabe and copycat jihadis, I’m OK with the state of emergency, but not for ever. Three months is enough,” she adds.

But already, some are calling for a longer state of emergency. Eric Ciotti, a right-wing member of the National Assembly, is one politician who has called for the rule to last for at least six months

‘Mission creep’

Experts, however, have warned that the key to maintaining public trust is to ensure that emergency rule is only temporary.

“The experience of repressive regimes such as [Nicolae] Ceausescu’s Romania is that increasing surveillance decreases the level of trust that people have for their government and makes them less cooperative and less supportive of the government,” Paul Bernal, a law professor at Britain’s University of East Anglia and the author of Internet Privacy Rights: Rights to Protect Autonomy, explains.

“Emergency’ powers need to be maintained only for emergencies: the longer these kinds of powers are kept after an obvious emergency, the easier it is for trust to be damaged.”

He adds that powers introduced for one reason could be used for others – a “prime danger usually known as ‘function creep’ or ‘mission creep'”.

“Right now, in Paris, some of the powers brought in to combat terrorism seem to be being used to control protesters and others at the climate change conference, for example. Powers might be used to stifle dissent, to clamp down on people like environmental campaigners, students and so forth. It needs a huge amount of care to avoid this problem – in practice it seems to happen all the time.”

“Clampdowns on [internet] privacy mainly have negative effects,” says Bernal. “They lower levels of trust, chill free speech and free assembly and association, and encourage the development of tools to evade government surveillance – tools which might end up being used by exactly the people that governments want to find.”

So, what should France, and others, do to combat the security threat?

“Make it [counterterrorism] more targeted and more ‘human-led’. That’s the real key,” advises Bernal.

“Privacy is a positive thing and important for communities to function. It should be supported rather than undermined. The current trend is for governments to be more oppressive and using more surveillance. Unfortunately we can probably expect this to continue.”

The S-Files

Many fear that freedom of speech and the media are at risk under emergency rule [Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images]
Many fear that freedom of speech and the media are at risk under emergency rule [Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images]

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, attention turned to the limitations of French intelligence and what many view as its surveillance on a shoestring.

Former top judge Marc Trevidic, who until the summer led France’s counterterrorism investigations and remains part of the judiciary, was quick to admit to deep security flaws after November 13, saying that the intelligence agencies are so stretched that they cannot cope, and that some previous foils were down to luck, rather than skill.

Roughly 3,300 people are employed in the domestic security service to monitor at least 10,500 people – a number confirmed by Prime Minister Manual Valls in the aftermath of the recent attacks – with so-called ‘fiche S’ files, identifying them as possible dangers to the safety of the state.

The ‘s’ stands for Sûreté de l’Etat (state security) and the file signals the highest warning level for those who are considered a threat but have not done anything to warrant an arrest. 

Frenchman Omar Ismail Mostefa, one of the suspected November 13 attackers, had been the subject of an S-file for radicalisation in 2010. The three killers in the January attacks, including at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine, were also on the S-files.

So, too, was Mohammed Merah – the ‘lone wolf’ who killed seven people in Toulouse and Montauban, southern France in 2012, and Ayoub El-Khazzani, who recently allegedly tried to kill passengers aboard a train from Amsterdam to Paris.

“There are not enough policemen to control all communications and the media,” says Yanis Warrach, an imam at a prison chapel in Alanse, Normandy.

Speaking to Al Jazeera by phone, he adds: “I’m not sure that they can stop people by controlling the internet. The experts say that as far as young people [deemed threatening to the country’s security] are concerned, it’s their parents who phone the police. They are not identified by their online communications. I’m not sure about the efficacy of this kind of control.”

Of particular concern, he adds, is the erosion of the role of a judge during emergency law.

“France is a country of freedom. The guardian of liberty in France is the judge, and without the judge, liberty is not guaranteed. I don’t like the emergency state. There is less control of the police,” he explains.

Youssef B, from Paris, also points to the security service’s flaws, saying that more surveillance is unlikely to impede further attacks.

“I don’t think increased surveillance will solve anything,” he says. “The simple proof is that, since [the] last attack in January, some of these people were under surveillance. They were known to police.”

Reports have said that the suspected ringleader of the November 13 attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, had not only travelled across borders while on an EU watch list but also featured as an interviewee in the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) propaganda magazine, Dabiq.

The 20-year-old suspected Stade de France suicide bomber, Bilal Hadfi, reportedly posted calls to attack the West on Facebook, writing: “Those dogs are attacking our civilians everywhere. Strike them in their community of pigs so they can’t feel safe again in their own dreams.”

“They should have been under tight surveillance,” says Youssef. “They still managed to organise a terrorist attack, and there would have been coordination, emails, discussions, but it doesn’t help. These people know how to cover their tracks.”

Youssef argues that surveillance is targeted at the Muslim minority as a tool to silence and control, impeding, for example, the growth of a resistance movement against profiling or discriminatory practices.

“The risk is that the tool focuses surveillance on Muslim leaders that want to organise politically or want to resist their current situation, in order to try to get them to drop their fight,” he says.

“Surveillance could be a tool for good. It depends how you use it. I’m not sure the French government will use it wisely.”

“We are caught between the emotion of the incident, plus the rationality of what will happen in the long term. If they start like this now, what happens next?”

Thirty-one-year-old Kavout Mahy is a Kurdistan-born political analyst who lives in the southern city of Albi. She thinks that the rhetoric and final objectives need to go beyond catching and killing “terrorists”.

“You can arrest, imprison, and kill as many terrorists as you want; the ideology will remain,” she says.

“As democratic societies, we need to answer several questions that require time and long-term investment: Why do so many men and women decide to leave a democratic society for a violent one, such as those being created in Syria? Are the factors that isolate these young people social, religious or financial? Which tools are being used to convince and recruit them? This requires police investigation inevitably, but also long-term investment in sociological research.”

But even so, she adds, while “no rational person would be happy to see their personal data used by a government, even for [a] security matter, I guess if it’s not in the long term I do not mind”.

Paris paranoia

In an IFOP public opinion poll published at the end of November, 84 percent of those surveyed said they were “ready to accept more controls and a certain limitation of freedoms”.

“The government is giving guarantees of security to a traumatised population that asks for ever more security, even at the price of sacrificing its own freedoms,” Noel Mamere, one of the few deputies to vote against the new measures, told Reuters.

“In a few months, these same people will wake up with a hangover and realise that, in the name of fighting terrorism, the country has been locked down and our individual and collective liberties violated.”

As for the long-term psychological effects of surveillance, Elias Aboujaoude, a psychiatrist based at the University of Stanford and the author of Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the e-Personality, stresses that it depends on the situation but is strongly linked to how long it goes on for. 

“Internet surveillance can contribute to a sense of paranoia in the culture overall,” he explains. “And you don’t have to be the victim of cyber-stalking to feel paranoid; anyone can feel a bit paranoid when they realise that so much of their private information is posted online, and will probably stay there for ever, waiting to be Googled.”

“The internet, coupled with geolocalising technology, can make for a powerful law enforcement tool with the potential to do a lot of good. It is a natural reaction to want to leverage such tools in the aftermath of horrific events such as what happened in Paris. But the indiscriminate use of such tools can be dangerous, too, and can paradoxically end up compounding the sense of paranoia and insecurity many Parisians already feel.”

Even now, just a few weeks after the attacks, some Parisians are beginning to worry about levels of surveillance and what they might mean for future generations.

“If everything we do, everything we say is monitored, our phone calls and email conversations, we are not under a democracy any more,” says Youssef B.

“For the Muslim minority here, which is mostly descended from North Africa, we’ve grown up with stories of surveillance. For my father, from Tunisia, being under surveillance was the nicest thing to have, the best of the worst. For them it was just normal. Maybe the younger generation, those who are coming next, will be much more aware that surveillance – if not backed by the judiciary – is against any belief in democracy that we voted for.”

Follow Anealla Safdar on Twitter: @anealla

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies