“Terrorist attacks challenge the values we stand for,” Antoine Madelin, of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) in Paris, told RFI. “And I think in responding in the same way as the terrorists – by restricting human rights - we’re playing their game, which is extremely damaging.”
The rights restrictions he is talking about are the powers given to police and intelligence services by the state of emergency to raid homes without a warrant and detain people or put them under house arrest without going through the standard legal procedures.
Beyond the broad human rights principles, Madelin and other rights defenders question the efficiency of expanding police powers, given that France already had implemented counter-terrorism laws after the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
“France developed legislation to counter terrorism but it failed to prevent futher attacks,” he said, pointing to the November attacks.
The FIDH believes the problem is not a lack of legislation but a lack of oversight.
“We’ve had arrests and house arrests and only less than a handful of official terrorism investigations, so a lot of our resources are used without any conclusion,” he said.
Since November, police have conducted 3,189 raids and put 392 people under house arrest. Five terrorist investigations have been opened and only one person has gone to trial for terrorism.
The rest were involved in more standard illegal activities, like drug trafficking or immigration problems.
Eric Dénecé, a former intelligence officer the director of the French Centre for Intelligence Studies, says this lack of terrorism investigations does not mean extending police powers is not efficient.
“Most potential terrorists have a criminal past,” he told RFI. The state of emergency allows police to “connect the dots” between those involved in arms or drug trafficking, and terrorist networks.
“We know they have links to terrorist networks, but we don’t have the proof,” he said.
“Thanks to the state of emergency we can connect the different situations in order to arrest people, or sometimes to warn them that they are under surveillance, so they do not do anything wrong against the country.”
And this is what the rights groups are worried about: police stopping people without going through the legal process.
“These restrictions should be always overseen by an independent judge who measures the validity of the threat against the necessity of the rest,” said Madelin. “In arresting people without further judicial argument, the authorities are failing in their mission."
Extending the state of emergency
Despite these arguments, President François Hollande wants to extend the state of emergency. Citing new threats from the Islamic State armed group, he will ask his cabinet on Wednesday to present a bill to parliament extending the state of emergency through May.
It will likely pass, as did the first extension in November, when only seven MPs voted against it. This shows that the president has the backing of his Socialist Party, which has a majority in parliament. But it also indicates a fear of being blamed for another attack.
The vice-president of the far-right Front National, Florian Philippot, on Tuesday said extending the state of emergency, which is “by definition” a temporary measure, is pure posturing, although MP Gilbert Collard, who is backed by the party, said he would vote for.
This is a position shared by Esther Benbassa, who was one of 12 Senators to abstain from the first vote, while the rest of the chamber voted for the extension.
“I call it cosmetic politics,” she told RFI.
In the 9 February debate in the Senate, she says she will argue against extending the emergency measures, and vote against it.
Her Green party rarely – if ever – shares positions with the Front National but in this case she says that Hollande is trying to look tough, to get reelected next year.
“In every period of history, war-like speech coming from the president has been seen as prestigious,” she said. But she doubts that extending the state of emergency will stop another terrorist attack.