A Police State to Avoid Any Critical Evaluation?

Paris, 19 November 2015 — Today the French National Assembly1 adopted the bill on the state of emergency2. This text was adopted in great urgency in an unprecedented one-upmanship autoritarian atmosphere. La Quadrature du Net expresses its concerns about several measures found in the bill, especially regarding police searches of electronic devices, Internet censorship and freedom of association. Rather than enganging in any thorough consideration of the causes that led to the killings and of the way to solve this complex situation, the entire French political class betrays itself by responding to this unprecedented attack on our liberties with a broad restriction of our civil liberties.

Although the bill specifies and updates a number of provisions, especially by reintroducing the possibility of an actual legal redress, La Quadrature du Net is alarmed by the rushed legislative process, making impossible a thorough examination and debate. Changes brought to the text are not trivial, and deeply affect fundamental liberties. La Quadrature du Net calls on senators who will vote on the bill tomorrow to pass amendments which restrict the duration of the state of emergency, strengthen judicial oversight and strictly limit emergency measures, so that the state of emergency powers are never used for other purposes than those for which said state of emergency was initially declared.

Indeed, all the provisions adopted by MPs under pressure from the government are seriously infringing the foundations of public and individual liberties:

First of all, the state of emergency -- which effectively suspends the separation of powers -- is extended by three months (instead of the normal duration of 12 days), without any serious justification. Since the beginning of the state of emergency last Saturday, numerous police searches have been conducted for common law offences unrelated to the fight against terrorism and prefigure a police state. The three-month duration of the state of emergency can be renewed with a simple vote of Parliament.

  • Regarding administrative police searches, their extension to electronic and data processing devices is not limited to the copying of the data found on the devices but also allows the seizure of all data, documents, etc. "accessible from the initial system or available for the initial system". Outside any significant legal oversight, it is thus "open bar" to look for, on a broad scope, any type of information on any type of electronic device of any French resident and especially any information available via usernames, passwords collected during a police search, any content stored online, etc.
  • French MPs also voted in favour of an amendment allowing the Minister of the Interior to block any website "the promoting terrorism or inciting terrorist acts", hence extending the measures included in the 2014 antiterrorist law which already gave that power to the police.
  • Regarding house arrest, it is important to highlight that the new wording significantly lightens the necessary conditions under which this measure, highly infringing individual liberties, can be used. In its 1955 version, the text required that "the activity turns out to endanger security and public order". The new version is intended to apply to individuals that present "serious reasons to think that their behaviour represents a threat for security and public order", thus adopting a broader and more imprecise scope. No definition of "serious reasons" is provided. The impact study explains that the individuals targeted are those who have "drawn the attention of the police and the intelligence services by their behaviour or company they keep, statements or projects". This measure leaves wide open the possibility of very broad interpretations, made worse by the fact that measures taken during the state of emergency are not overseen by a judicial judge.
  • Likewise, the text specifies that house arrests can be conducted in locations chosen by the Minister of the Interior, which paves the way for the worse house arrest requests made by politicians (some have mentioned "internment camps"), with the possibility of resorting to electronic bracelets.
  • Regarding the dissolution of formal groups and associations, the procedure allows for very broad interpretation and as such for serious violation of the freedom of association. It describes associations which "take part in committing acts that seriously endanger the public order or whose activities facilitate or encourage committing such acts": this could include, for instance, many associations promoting the use of encryption technologies, which are indeed used by criminals but also mainly by many innocent citizens. Again, under the current text, these powers can be used in cases unrelated to terrorism.

"The debate and the vote on the state of emergency in the French lower house shows how MPs and the government are in total denial of the current situation. The vote was marked by a relentless will to undermine the rule of law and the balance of powers. It demonstrates how far the political class is far from really engaging in the work necessary to address the terrorism in all its complexity. We call on citizens to explicitly mark their disapproval to their representatives, since it is in the name of their fears that panicking MPs are scarifying their liberties. They believe that creating a police state can create an illusion of security by putting in place, for several months, a police state3. In the face of this super fast-tracked adoption 4,we are left with little more to do than document the disaster, hoping for an awakening." declared Adrienne Charmet, campaign coordinator for La Quadrature du Net.

  • 1. French lower legislative chamber
  • 2. The text was adopted with 551 votes in favour and 6 votes against.
  • 3. The principal characteristic of the state of emergency is to put in the hands of the police the prerogatives usually in the hands of the judiciary power
  • 4. The text was presented in the Council of Ministers on Wednesday morning and in the Law Committee of the lower chamber the same day. It was adopted in the lower chamber on Thursday morning. It will be presented in the Law Committee of the upper chamber Thursday afternoon and in the upper chamber on Friday morning.