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Don’t Be Too Quick To Condemn France’s Terrorism-Prompted Restrictions On Civil Liberties


Although it didn’t receive a lot of press, on Sunday in the main train station of the southern French city of Marseille, a man who reportedly shouted “Allahu Akbar” stabbed one young woman in the stomach and slit the throat of another before being shot by police. Both the victims died. ISIS claimed responsibility.

France hasn’t had a large-scale ISIS attack since last summer, but it has experienced numerous small-scale attacks like this. These smaller attacks often result in no casualties and, because they frequently involve knives and cars rather than bombs and guns, receive relatively little media attention here in the United States. In France and across the European continent, such attacks are becoming almost quotidian.

Yet it’s important not to forget that regardless of how poorly equipped or trained the men and women who launch a terrorist attack might be, it is their intention to do as much damage as possible. It’s also crucial to remember that the Muslim followers of ISIS and its religious ideology aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. That’s something the French government, at least, isn’t having any trouble remembering.

Just two days after the Marseille knife attack, the French parliament assembled to vote on a new and controversial counter-terrorism bill proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron. The fast-tracked bill is meant to provide a way for France to end a state of emergency that was first put into place in November 2015, after the attack on the Bataclan music venue in Paris. The state of emergency has since been extended five times.

A Permanent State of Emergency

Under the state of emergency, police have the ability to search homes and properties without a warrant, put individuals under house arrest, impose curfew in certain areas, or forbid gatherings. All this can be done without judicial oversight, in the name of national security.

Macron has promised to end the state of emergency by passing legislation for a new counter-terrorism law. But that bill, which the lower house of parliament passed Tuesday, has received serious criticism. The problem is that the law would simply shift many of the temporary provisions of the state of emergency into permanent ones, making the move largely one of optics rather than substance.

The Human Rights Watch argues the new law will perpetuate the human rights abuses it says have occurred throughout the current state of emergency. United Nations human rights experts say that normalizing emergency powers “has grave consequences for the integrity of rights protection in France, both within and beyond the context of counter-terrorism.”

What specifically worries these groups is the possibility that French security forces will disproportionately and unfairly profile and target Muslims in an effort to prevent future terrorist attacks. That’s because the law would allow the police to assign areas as security zones if authorities perceive a threat, then limit movement within and through that area, as well as carry out searches. Since many of France’s Muslims live in concentrated neighborhoods, especially on the outskirts of cities, it would be easy for police to clamp down on them as it sees fit. What’s more, French police could shut down mosques if they think religious leaders there are inciting violence or encouraging terrorism.

A Perpetual State of War

But that is not, apparently, how French lawmakers by-and-large view the matter. To them, France is under attack and must protect itself. France’s Interior Minister Gerard Collomb told France Inter radio, “We are still in a state of war. We have foiled numerous attacks since the start of the year that would have led to many deaths.” As if to prove his point, police arrested five men in Paris on Tuesday who are suspected of being involved in a failed attempt to detonate a bomb in a swanky apartment building in the 16th arrondissement.

The way Macron and his government see things, the emergency powers are what allowed for preventing another large-scale attack. Without them, France would find itself more bloodied than it already is.

Moreover, France’s problem can’t be solved by travel restrictions because it is largely homegrown. The country is home to the largest Muslim population in Europe, mostly from its former colonies in North Africa, and the relationship between French Muslims and the rest of France is strained, to say the least. Both because of their ostracization and self-imposed segregation, an alarming number of French Muslims have proven open or vulnerable to the Islamic State’s violent mission to attack to the West.

Macron’s new legislation certainly does give the police sweeping powers that could easily be abused, and given human nature, most certainly will be. But French leaders finds themselves in a terrible position. They know that the majority of security threats come from sections of the Muslim population and from some, although not all, of its mosques. France has to be able to address that risk through increased scrutiny and the power to intervene when necessary. At the same time, France is supposed to be a liberal democracy that protects basic civil rights.

Safety Versus Freedom

So how does a nation like France balance a desire to be free with a desire to be safe? It’s the same question that many Americans are asking in the days following the Las Vegas shooting—is our safety worth stripping Americans of their Second Amendment rights? Right now, many on the Left are saying “yes,” as they have been for years. It’s also a question America has had to deal with on surveillance in the years following 9/11 and the 2001 Patriot Act.

But when it comes to Muslims, terrorism, and national security, the United States and France have had very different reactions. While France is moving toward stricter scrutiny of mosques and increased police powers, the dominant U.S. narrative, especially in the media, is that Muslims shouldn’t be scrutinized any more than any other religion is for national security.

We saw this phenomenon manifest itself in the uproar over the Trump administration’s series of travel bans that targeted Muslim-majority countries. It’s also why you often see grandmothers and small children being thoroughly patted down at the airport, as if they represent just as much of a security risk as any other demographic. For better or worse, the United States has thus far resisted the urge to engage in racial profiling, no matter the security risks.

But the United States is not France. It doesn’t have the same perspective or the same experiences (nor, obviously, the same laws or constitutional protections). France has also borne the brunt of ISIS attacks in Europe since the group emerged on the international scene in 2015, and has seen more than 240 people killed by the group’s followers on French soil. Every time a new attack takes place, accusations fly about how the security forces should have seen this coming.

That’s what Macron is trying to fix with this new counter-terrorism bill. The fact is, in the age of ISIS the constant threat of terrorist attacks, both large and small, has become the new reality for Europe. Americans might express their disapproval of the strict measures Macron is proposing, but it’s worth remembering that we in the United States don’t face the steady, seemingly endless stream of attacks that Europeans do today.