The political discourse and national debates surrounding the security measures taken by the French government have targeted Muslim minorities in particular, alienating them from French society and leading to increased Islamophobic incidents.
The year 2015 has been the bloodiest one for France since the World War II. It began with massacres at a newspaper’s office and a Kosher supermarket, along with the assassination of police officers, and ended with the November attacks. In total, 149 lives were lost and the country, although its people acted with dignity in the face of horror, saw its government repeat the same mistakes as the previous administrations, if not worse.
On 14 November 2015, President Francois Hollande declared the state of emergency, which is a special legal regime located between the state of siege and the state of peace. By declaring it, Mr Hollande gave the Prefects and the police much broader powers and restrained judges’ capacity to act as balancing powers. Without having to go through a judge, Prefects have been allowed to order raids and to put any person deemed to have a “suspicious behaviour” under house arrest. It did not take long before this broadening of powers led to excesses, which have led to concerns among human rights organisations.
Despite official statements urging not to conflate Muslims with terrorists, the French Muslim community has implicitly been held responsible for the attacks. Nearly 3400 raids have been carried out, the overwhelming majority of which were against Muslims. These raids were too often characterised by brutality and readiness to humiliate people in their homes, businesses and mosques. It took a series of videos showing blatant abuse by the police for the Minister of Interior to speak up and promise to “send letters to the Prefects so they abide by the law”. However, the targeting of minorities and its effectiveness was not questioned. The Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) is still dealing with 267 cases of abuses linked to the state of emergency and the government has failed to address its concerns on the deliberate targeting of Muslims. In its report on the state of emergency, Human Rights Watch highlighted the fact that French Muslims were directly targeted by the government, which not only violates basic human rights but also undermines cooperation with communities.
Indeed, several mosques were raided and ransacked by the police even when the mosque staff were cooperating. Several victims testified to media outlets and brought forward their stories of being humiliated in front of their children and being savagely beaten by intervention teams, who, in some cases, injured children, which sparked an outrage within the Muslim community.
Alarmed by the security drift, the Defender of Rights Mr Jacques Toulon blamed the government for not providing any protection to children during raids and for carrying out raids without clear evidence of wrongdoing. The CCIF also raised concerns on the long-term consequences of the government’s brutality towards children. For the most vulnerable ones who were dragged out of their beds by the police, only to see their parents brutalised and humiliated in front of them, there could be a risk of long-term psychological trauma and of being tempted by radical ideas.
At the same time, President Hollande and his Prime Minister Manuel Valls proposed a bill to strip convicted terrorists with dual citizenship of their French citizenship even if they were born on French soil. This measure, which the government itself acknowledged as ineffective against terrorism, was seen as a move to please right wing voters in order to prepare for the 2017 presidential election. The proposal sparked a national debate on the issue which lasted four months.
Despite a broad and intense mobilisation that led to the repeal of the bill, the debate had a damaging impact on national cohesion, due to the government reigniting the issue of French identity, the place of Muslims in French society and whether they are fully-fledged citizens. The last time the French state revoked people’s citizenship was during the Vichy administration which collaborated with Nazi Germany and stripped several thousand Jews of their French citizenship.
The measure was brought back to the public sphere out of cynical use of the French people’s fear after the November attacks and sent the message that the terrorists could not possibly be French even though they were born, raised and educated in France. In comparison, several terrorist groups had targeted France in the past without the question of citizenship being raised. For instance, in the 1950s, the Organisation of the Secret Army threatened to overthrow General De Gaulle who was about to grant Algeria its independence. Others, such as the communist Action Directe and Corsican and Basque terrorist groups, carried out terrorist attacks yet stripping them of their citizenship was never invoked.
The November Paris attacks motivated the French government to push for a security based agenda at the cost of the balance of powers which is central to democracy, and leading to Muslim citizens being targeted without any evidence of wrongdoing.
Based on victims’ testimonies, CCIF lawyers concluded that the governments’ decisions were seen as retaliation against Muslims. “If not, then why humiliate and beat us in our homes when they find nothing?” as they put it. The assault on civil liberties was pushed further when the French government warned that it would no longer abide by the European Convention on Human Rights.
Despite having the most stringent legal framework against terrorism, the government pushed for more anti-terrorism measures. The law on surveillance for instance, which made legal all the excesses of the US Patriot Act under the pretext of fighting terrorism, was passed after arguing that France was at war against terrorism. Once again, the Muslim community was the implicit enemy, described as the “fifth column” or the “enemy within” which was used as a justification for diminishing liberties and to convince the public that it was necessary to provide the state with wider powers, more opacity and ever less accountability for government officials.
For instance, by by-passing judges and giving more power to Prefects, the justice department is no longer able to supervise these new powers or to protect civil liberties. The staggering statistics showing non-existent results in the fight against terrorism were not sufficient and neither the President nor his Prime Minister questioned this lack of results. Questioning came from the intelligence community itself as early as 2013 when the Secretariat General of National Security and Defence issued a confidential report urging the government to reconsider its strategy. It called for then Minister of Interior Manuel Valls to adopt an upstream approach that takes into consideration the social root causes of radicalisation, to work with communities, develop an effective counter discourse, to involve religious institutions and grassroots organisations and to take a public stance on the matter…but to no avail.
Furthermore, by targeting Muslims through security measures and demonising political discourse while at the same keeping them away from any anti-terrorism strategy, the government has not only alienated the Muslim minority but has also lost its first ally in the struggle against terrorism. It is rather surprising to read in the above-mentioned report that the government did not work with Muslim institutions despite the fact that foreign terrorist organisations are using Islam to build their narrative.
Muslims have by far paid the greater price for the repercussions of the attacks.
The terrorists who targeted France made no difference between their victims but Muslims were triply affected: by terrorists, by the government and by average citizens who took the matter into their own hands by physically assaulting Muslims.
The fact that minorities are the primary victims of government policies is no secret. But government excesses only play in the interest of terrorist groups who need to prove minorities are persecuted in order to appeal to the elements seeking a sense of purpose, of belonging and who might seek revenge against a society they are excluded from. Unfortunately, the targeting of minorities in the name of terror not only marginalises them but affects the whole population as the rule of law is weakened. By creating a precedent and making it acceptable to bend the rules in order to target one specific group, it is an open door for normalised abuses and an attack on civil liberties.