We examine France’s aggressive counterterrorism measures and the consequences for the Muslim community.
In 2015, two devastating attacks, claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) killed 147 people in Paris. Nine of the 13 perpetrators were born in France, prompting the government to launch a national “de-radicalisation programme” and introduce a series of extra-judiciary measures against those considered a threat to national security.
A state of emergency has been declared until May of this year, handing the police a raft of new powers allowing for raids and arrests without judicial oversight. In the two months following last November’s attacks, police searched 4,000 houses, opened more than 500 criminal cases and placed 382 people under house arrest.
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These new measures are currently being written into the country’s constitution, affording them a permanent place in the legal framework of the French state.
Opinion polls show that the public is largely in favour of this approach, but with only five court proceedings directly linked to terrorism resulting from the thousands of raids carried out since November, the efficiency of the government’s approach has been contested by critics. Human rights groups too have warned that police raids and house arrests have been both abusive and discriminatory against Muslims, threatening to undermine the principles of equality and liberty upon which the French Republic was built.
In this week’s People and Power, filmmakers Charles Emptaz and Victoria Baux investigate whether the French government is sacrificing basic human rights in the name of security. They then travel to Denmark to examine an alternative, more moderate model of de-radicalisation and ask whether this might offer the French government an effective approach which is more in keeping with the country’s core values.
By Victoria Baux and Charles Emptaz
“Look at what France has become,” Halim Abdelmalek said, after showing our camera a police warrant he had received explaining the reasons for his being placed under house arrest.
The letter arrived a few days after the ISIL attacks of November 13, revealing that Halim has been on the French intelligence services’ radar since May 2015. A policeman had spotted the bearded young Muslim entrepreneur walking through a neighbourhood which is home to an employee of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the target of ISIL’s first attack in France. But Halim, who grew up in this neighbourhood, says he was just visiting his mother that day and had no ill intentions.
The letter from the police also states that Halim was seen taking a photo of a building close to the Charlie Hebdo offices, an accusation that he denies, and this resulted in his arrest. From November 2015 to February 2016, Halim was forced to stay within the borders of the small suburban town, on the outskirts of Paris, where he currently lives. We filmed him as he was checking in at the local police station, something he was forced to do three times a day, every day, for the duration of his period of house arrest.
Like 10,500 other French Muslims, Halim has a “Fiche S”, or S-Card, attached to his police record. This designates him as a person “representing a threat to the security of the state”. Halim’s file also says that he was seen praying at a Salafist mosque in Paris a few years ago, and as a result he is now categorised as a “radicalised Muslim”. For his part, Salim says finding faith has had exactly the opposite effect on him and the threat he poses to society. “I did some bad things in the past, but religion saved me,” he said.
And it is not just members of the Muslim community who believe the measures implemented by the state of emergency have stigmatised them.
“Since the attacks, the population has felt deeply worried and anxious, and this can lead to stigmatisation … I worry about religious stigmatisation,” socialist MP Francoise Descamps-Crosnier told us, as we accompanied her on a visit to Fresnes prison, where a controversial programme is under way to isolate radicalised Muslim prisoners from the general jail population.
Prominent human rights lawyer William Bourdon has also been campaigning against another new law which allows the state to revoke the French nationality of citizens holding dual citizenship if they are suspected of involvement in terrorism.
He says that extending the powers of the French police and intelligence services can “criminalise and demonise a group of people who haven’t done anything wrong”. And even some of those at the top of government appear uneasy with the government’s methods to combat radicalisation. In January, Justice Minister Christiane Taubira resigned in protest at the new raft of security measures, citing a “major political disagreement” and her desire “to be faithful to myself, to my commitments and to my convictions”.
While making this film, we approached a number of representatives from different government ministries, security experts and the French intelligence services. We wanted to understand why a supposedly left-wing government had opted for such an unexpectedly repressive approach to the question of radicalisation. The unease felt by officials when addressing this issue was palpable and it was difficult to get any clear or coherent explanation from them.
Travelling through the French cities of Toulouse, St Etienne and the Parisian suburb of St Denis, we also encountered compelling evidence that some of the most effective work currently being undertaken to prevent radicalisation is carried out by volunteers, without support or an official stamp of approval from the authorities. We met well-connected individuals who appeared knowledgeable about the areas where alleged ISIL recruiters currently operate in France and the methods they employ. These individuals claimed that they had identified and helped a number of young Muslims at risk of being recruited and travelling to Syria. But, they said, their work is being ignored by the government.
We then travelled to Denmark’s second biggest city, Aarhus, to look into an integration model set up there, by the local police department and municipality, to prevent Danish citizens from travelling to Syria to fight with rebel groups, and to reintegrate those who have already gone and now returned. The programme appears to have enjoyed some success – only three locals have travelled from Aarhus to Syria since its implementation in 2014, whereas 29 made the journey the previous year.
Police Superintendent Allan Aarslev, the man in charge of the programme, best summarised the stark contrast we witnessed between the French and Danish approaches: “We would have more problems if we didn’t help them. So we help these people, first of all because it makes society more secure, and secondly, of course, because it is the humane thing to do.”
While in Aarhus, we learned that the “Conseil d’Etat”, France’s highest administrative court, had suspended Halim’s house arrest, due to a lack of evidence. We also discovered that a French delegation had visited Aarhus to take a closer look at the model being employed there.
But it remains to be seen whether President Francois Hollande, who faces a general election in 2017, will be willing to make meaningful changes to his government’s strategy for dealing with this threat in the near future. His situation is made only more complicated by the resurgence of the far-right National Front party during last year’s regional elections. Amid a growing climate of fear and resentment in French society, his socialist coalition appears unlikely to abandon its firm stance on terrorism and risk falling victim to yet another attack. Still, finding better ways to engage with and integrate young French Muslims may in the end prove a more effective rejoinder to the threat posed by ISIL than the current apparent abandonment of the key French principles of fairness and liberty.
Editor’s note: Since this film was first shown, People & Power was sad to learn of the death of its director of photography, Pierre Creisson, who was killed in an air accident on March 14 while on location in Kenya. For over 20 years, Pierre was a well-respected reporter, cameraman and filmmaker. He covered conflicts in Darfur, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan and particularly enjoyed filming the daily lives of remote indigenous communities – the focus of recent projects in Madagascar and Kenya. Our thoughts are with his family and colleagues.