There’ve been a series of terrorist attacks in Europe, and now France, one of the countries hardest hit, is adjusting to this elevated threat.
Last week, the French parliament passed yet another law that gives state police and judicial authorities new powers to detain people suspected of terrorist activities, put people under house arrest and use deadly force to stop potential threats.
Since the shootings at the offices of Charlie Hebdo last year and the attacks that killed 130 people this year, French people have been trying to cope with the fact that not only is their country a target for terrorism, but terrorists who participated in the attacks were born and raised in France and in neighboring Belgium.
And now the French are asking a question Americans have been struggling with: How does a country balance civil-liberties with safety and security?
Producer Emma Jacobs reports from Paris on how the French are answering the question… and the answer lies at the intersection of French values, French fears, and French laws.
On a Tuesday morning in March, images of smoke rising from the Brussels airport loop on the television at the cafe Le Carillon in Paris. News of the explosions has just broken. One man drinking coffee at the bar is riveted by the TV on the back wall. But others who stop in for a morning espresso seem unaffected. The bartender stands watching the television when it’s quiet. He’s cheerful and chatty with customers. This is a prime example of Paris’s new normal.
Le Carillon was one of the places attacked in November by ISIS fighters; it’s only been a few months since workers finished patching the bullet holes.
Parisians are trying to return to their old normal lives, but Paris remains on high alert. Soldiers in camouflage patrol the narrow sidewalks and search bags at the post office and department stores. France is also grappling with how to adapt its laws to keep people safe.
Three days after the November attacks in Paris, French President Francois Hollande made a speech in the grand Palace of Versailles, the symbol of French power.
HOLLANDE: La France est en guerre. Les actes commis vendredi soir à Paris et près du Stade de France, sont des actes de guerre.
HOLLANDE: France is at war. The acts committed in Paris and near the Stade de France on Friday evening are acts of war.
It was a forceful speech, made by a Socialist President at a time when the far-right seemed poised to benefit from fears of terrorism.
Immediately after the attacks, Hollande had declared a nation-wide state of emergency. It’s a temporary legal status laid out in a law from the 1950s. It allows police and the government sweeping powers to conduct warrantless searches and house arrests, and to shut down big events or even private sites like mosques.
In his speech, Hollande asked Parliament to extend that state of emergency for three more months.
He also asked the legislature to amend the constitution, allowing the government to strip citizenship from convicted terrorists. And he wanted to take that state of emergency provision from the 1950s law and add that to the French constitution, making legal challenges harder.
But while some in France feel extraordinary measures are justified to keep people safe, others are experiencing the collateral damage of the war on terror. People like Halim Abdulmalek.
The day before Hollande’s speech, in another Paris suburb, Halim was summoned to his local police precinct.
He wasn’t sure what he was there for. The letter he had received cited a work issue. Halim runs a tow service for motorcycles. He thought maybe one of his employees had a run-in with the law.
HALIM: Je reste une heure un peu pression. Un flic me tiens par le bras, me fait monter dans l’ascenseur. Je dis, ‘Qu’est ce qui se passe, Monsieur?’ Personne ne me répond.
HALIM: I was there an hour feeling a little stressed. A cop takes me by the arm, makes me get in the elevator. ‘What’s going on, sir.’ No one responded.
Upstairs, Halim was handed another letter. This one said he was suspected of being a radical islamist and it assigned him to house arrest, immediately and indefinitely.
HALIM: J’ai peur franchement. J’ai peur. J’ai extenué.
HALIM: I was afraid frankly. I was afraid. I was worn out.
Parliament granted Hollande’s request for an extension of the state of emergency and over the next few weeks hundreds of these letters were distributed to people around the country, based on information provided by domestic intelligence. Clémence Bectarte is a lawyer with the International Federation for Human Rights, headquartered in Paris.
BECTARTE: What’s changed basically is that the threshold of evidence is very low.
During the state of emergency, Bectarte says, security services have not needed to convince a judge to allow them to act. So they’ve done so solely on the basis of these so-called “notes blanches” or white papers.
BECTARTE: Unsigned notes prepared by the intelligence services which can say one thing and whatever about one individual and on the single basis of these elements a citizen can be placed under house arrests for very long periods of time.
In the US we would call these warrantless detentions.
BECTARTE: Before the security services, they had to pass through the judicial system, meaning putting this evidence on a certain threshold so that an individual could defend himself and so a judge could effectively control if the evidence was sufficient or not to justify an attempt to individual liberties. Which does not exist anymore under the state of emergency.
Halim was one of the men detained under the state of emergency. He lives in a spacious apartment in a new building just outside the city boundaries.
From November until late January, this was where he spent most of his days, except for regular trips to the police department. He had to check in with the police three to four times a day and sign a form.
He couldn’t leave the boundaries of his town. He had a curfew. If he was late to check in or broke any of these rules, he faced jail time.
HALIM: C’etait non-stop. Le matin je me lève tout le temps la peur au ventre de peur d’arriver en retard pour signer, en sachant que j’avais la prison qui me pend. Ensuite en revenant de commissariat c’est plus de la peur c’est de la colère.
HALIM: It was nonstop. Morning I always would get up with fear in my stomach of arriving late to sign. Knowing that I had prison hanging over me. Then, returning from the station, it’s no longer fear, it’s anger.
This was not Halim’s first encounter with police.
Halim says he was a pretty serious juvenile delinquent. The son of two Algerian immigrants, he cleaned up his act when he found God as a teenager and began attending mosque. He’s now in his mid-30s. He wears a short squared-off beard. He has a family, two little boys, and his motorcycle breakdown service, which takes him all over Paris and the suburbs.
He’d testified once in a case against a car-theft ring that was sending money to terrorists in Yemen. He’d unknowingly bought one of the cars. But as far as he’s aware, he’d never been of interest to counter-terror investigators until last year.
In May of 2015, before the November attacks but after the shooting at Charlie Hebdo, Halim collided with France’s growing counter-terrorism operations. By accident, really.
He was visiting the southeast Paris neighborhood where he grew up.
HALIM: Je venais rejoindre ma femme chez ma mère pour qu’elle pose notre deuxième garçon Mohammed, le plus petit, pour je le ensuite je l’ai déposé chez je déposé ma femme chez son dentiste.
HALIM: I was coming to join my wife at my mother’s house where she was dropping off Mohammed, our littlest son, so that I could then drop her off at her dentist.
He stopped on his motorbike at the corner to wait for her. With his helmet still on, he gave his wife a call, holding the phone out in front of him on speaker. Then a man approached him.
HALIM: Un monsieur habille en civile, bonne c’est un policier, je l’avais remarqué aussi. Il vient me prends une photo. Il prend trois photographies, une à l’avant, une à l’arrière, une sur la côté gauche de mon scooter. Donc la gentiment je demande, ‘Mais monsieur pourqoui vous me prenez une photo?’ Il me dit, ‘Non non.’ Il répond même pas. Je dis, ‘Mais vous êtes en train de me prendre une photo quand même.’ Il me répond d’un sourire narquois moqueur un peu, et retourne vers ces collègues.
HALIM: A man, a policemen in plainclothes – I’d noticed him too – he comes and takes a photo of me. He takes three photographs. One from the front. One from the back and one from the left of my scooter. So politely I asked, ‘But sir, why are you taking a photo of me?’ He said, ‘No no.’ He didn’t respond. I said, ‘But really, you’re taking a photo of me.’ He gave me a little smile that was a little mocking, contemptuous and then returned towards his colleagues.
Halim knew there was a security detail on this corner. People in the neighborhood would chat about the police van that had been parked there since January. Things like that had become relatively normal since the attacks.
But having his picture taken struck Halim as strange and he talked about it all day. Then, while eating a late dinner at a restaurant, he got a call from Malika, his wife. It was just after midnight.
HALIM: Ma femme m’appelle en me disant, ‘Oui Halim, il y a des policiers assez musclés, assez sombres on va dire qui vient de venir à la maison.’
HALIM: My wife called me saying, ‘Halim, there were some very big, serious, police officers who just came to the house.’
According to Malika the men had been polite. ‘Calm down madam. Is your husband home?’ She had offered to call him then, but they said it wasn’t necessary and left her with a letter.
HALIM: ‘Donnez-lui cette convocation. Demain il doit se présenter urgemment à cette adresse là. Et vraiment, on rigole pas. Il faut vraiment qu’il vienne.’
HALIM: ‘Give him this summons. Tomorrow he must present himself urgently to this address here and really, we’re not kidding. He really needs to come.’
So the next afternoon, Halim traveled to police headquarters: it’s an imposing stone building in the center of the City — something you might see on a Paris postcard on the banks of the Seine, or in a French police drama.
Halim’s meeting was with the anti-terrorism division. He had to hand over his phone so the interrogator could go through his pictures.
Apparently, one of the surviving Charlie Hebdo cartoonists lived in his mother’s neighborhood. That’s why the police van was parked there, near where Halim had been photographed the day before.
When the police saw Halim talking on speaker-phone, they thought he was doing some kind of reconnaissance.
HALIM: ‘Je ne savais pas que c’était un monsieur qui travaille sur Charlie Hebdo et n’a rien à foutre et là vous perdez votre temps.’
HALIM: [I said,] ‘I didn’t know there was a guy who worked on Charlie Hebdo, I don’t give a shit and you’re wasting your time.’
The interrogator asked to take a look into his bank account. He agreed and didn’t hear from them again for months.
Terrorism isn’t new in France, and the laws that allow the state to respond to threats have evolved gradually.
But there was something about the attacks in November – how coordinated and far-reaching and random they were – that struck people here as different and scarier than previous violence.
It’s part of the reason the French public has been relatively accepting of what the government has done since that November night.
Halim had a ticket to attend the soccer match at the Stade de France where two suicide bombers struck. But he says he did a really tough work-out earlier in the day, and decided to go home and watch the game on television instead.
HALIM: Pendant le match des qu’on entend le premier bruit, donc il y a rien deuxième bruit. Donc on s’est dit, ‘mais qu’est ce que qui se passe.’ Et la il y a le téléphone qui sonne là. Mon petit frère il m’appelle. Il me dit, ‘Écouté Halim, bordel, regarde tout suite BFM.’
HALIM: During the game as soon as we heard the first noise, then there was nothing. Then there was the second so we said to each other, ‘What’s going on?’ And then the phone rang. It was my little brother calling and he said to me, ‘Halim, fuck, turn on BFM right away.’
He turned from the game to BFM, a news channel.
HALIM: J’ai dit, ‘Oh la la la. Qu’est ce-qui se passe? C’est catastrophique.’
HALIM: I said, ‘Oh la la la. What’s going on? It’s catastrophic.’
There were bombings outside the Stade de France, a hostage crisis in the Bataclan concert hall, and dozens of people killed in French cafes by gunmen and suicide bombers. The city went into lockdown. People crowded into nearby friends’ or strangers’ houses to spend the night.
Bernard Squarcini is a former head of French domestic intelligence under President Nicolas Sarkozy. He’s now a private consultant, advising companies on security threats.
He says people who commit these types of attacks are often already on the government’s radar.
SQUARCINI: Listes de suspects des gens qui sont surveilés mais qui n’ont pas assez allez de l’avant pour rentrer sous le clignotant judiciare et procédure.
SQUARCINI: There are lists of people who are being watched but have not done enough to sound the alarm and begin a judicial proceeding.
This is one of the things that has been extensively covered since the attacks: how many of the Paris attackers were known to intelligence services.
But some people under government surveillance might never do any harm. Before the state of emergency, the government’s agents had to wait and watch and try to identify real threats before they happened.
But in the immediate aftermath of these unprecedented, simultaneous attacks, Squarcini says it made sense to take extraordinary measures and lock down people the government had real concerns about.
SQUARCINI: [Ils] vont faire l’objet apres surveillance d’interpellation, perquisition et si on trouve des elements interressants rebasculer sur le mode penale.
SQUARCINI: Those surveilled could be questioned, searched and if you found something interesting you could fall back on the criminal system.
If the police, based on their suspicions, found evidence of a crime, they could proceed with a normal criminal prosecution. If not, well perhaps they’d keep surveilling or place the person under house arrest. Maybe some were cleared – but it’s hard to know.
Squarcini says security services appear to have cast a very wide net. He says he suspects that’s either because of bad intelligence or because they were under political pressure to look tough.
The state of emergency was extended again and again, and by late April, security forces had conducted around 3,500 search of homes, shops, and mosques.
The press reported on some injuries and property damage – including to mosques – during raids. An eerie, silent security camera video was shown on the news of a raid on a restaurant serving Hallal Tex-Mex food north of Paris. In the video, the Pepper Grill is full of diners. They all put their hands on their heads as police with machine guns file in the door.
BECTARTE: The essence of these measures are linked to potential abuses.
Bectarte, the lawyer with the International Federation for Human Rights, says by lifting legal protections over such an extended period of time, problems became inevitable.
BECTARTE: Public opinion was under major shock and we think that this emotion was a great deal instrumentalized by the government. This has been witnessed in a lot of countries democratic or less or non-democratic states and every time the alerts have been the same saying be careful because by sacrificing our individual liberties we can open and pave the way to more infringements.
There has been pushback. In May, the state of emergency was extended a third time, but without the warrantless searches. And Hollande’s request for a constitutional amendment had a lot of support at first, but in the end it failed.
But France’s “temporary” crisis mode has been in place almost seven months.
Under this state of emergency, the government can still keep people in house arrest without bringing charges. As of late April, more than 400 people had been under house arrest for at least some period of time.
Their outcomes have varied.
Halim’s house arrest in November continued through January, taking a toll on his personal life and business. His employees, frustrated with the extra hurdles of working for a house-bound boss, quit one by one.
Acquaintances and customers also started to back away.
HALIM: Ça crée la doute chez les gens. Ils ont peur. Ils se disent, ‘Bon Halim, il voyage beaucoup. On le connaît mais peut-être qu’on le connaît pas,’ – vraiment assez comme les gens les terroristes après qu’on témoigne quand les gens ils témoignent. Ils disent, ‘Oui on ne connaissait. Il était gentil.’
HALIM: It created doubt for people. They’re afraid. They say to themselves, ‘Well Halim he travels a lot. We know him but maybe we don’t know him enough’ – like the terrorists afterwards people say, when they’re witnesses. They say, ‘We didn’t know… He was nice.’
After a couple of weeks, Halim found a lawyer to help him challenge his detention in court.
HALIM: On fait un travail franchement méticuleux. C’est à dire on parle de facture téléphonique de moment précis où j’appelle ma femme quand j’ai été sur le scooter. Ensuite je rajoute encore des témoignages ensuite je donne des précisions à la minute, à la seconde, du déroulement de la journée. J’ai vu ça la télé ça marche. Il faut donner les moindres détails.
HALIM: We did frankly meticulous work. We’re talking about the telephone bill of the precise moment where I called my wife when I was on the scooter. I added evidence and then I gave precise details to the minute, to the second, of the events of the day. I’d seen it on the television. It works. You need to give the littlest details.
After 68 days, an appeals judge overturned his house arrest. According to newspapers, it was the first house arrest under the state of emergency to be suspended by a court. In late February, the Interior Ministry abandoned its efforts to detain him.
The courts have only heard a handful of cases but gradually, the government has lifted or let lapse hundreds of other sentences. As of late April, only 69 people were still under house arrest.
BECTARTE: Without even explaining why it was justified you know at one time and then it wasn’t anymore. These people were very often not at all interrogated.
And since only a handful of terrorism prosecutions have gone ahead, Bectarte says it appears the government targeted a lot of people who were never a serious threat. A number of watchdog organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have expressed similar concerns.
Yasser Louati works for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France. Lately, he says the group has been inundated with hundreds of calls from people who were under house arrest or whose homes were searched under the State of Emergency. .
LOUATI: The testimonies we are collecting from victims, it is a sense of retaliation against them because they are Muslims.
He says if at least some French Muslims believe they’re being unfairly targeted, this is ultimately counterproductive to France’s goals.
LOUATI: What do these terrorists say? ‘You are being persecuted. They are humiliating you. They are targeting you in your homes and your mosques, businesses, etc.’
In an email, the French Interior Ministry wrote that it has seized more than 700 guns and proceeded with prosecutions for a number of crimes. It did not respond to concerns about whether the French government is detaining innocent people or profiling.
Jonah Levy is a professor of comparative politics at UC Berkeley. He says France has historically set the balance between state power and individual liberty far more in favor of the state than the U.S.
LEVY: France has extensive police powers extensive censorship laws extensive restrictions on individual liberties all in the name of public order.
Levy says the general idea has been to empower the state to do good rather than to prevent it from doing harm.
LEVY: But as we’ve already seen, those powers can easily bleed into other areas where they were not originally intended.
Just after the attacks, the French government used the State of Emergency to detain environmental activists .
LEVY: We saw this with Patriot Act in the United States that has been used far more widely than its founders ever imagined. The French have in many ways gone further than the Patriot Act and at some point there may be more push back as, uh, the range of people who are being investigated or interred preventatively expands.
Halim has mixed feelings about what the government has been doing. He agrees that the scale of the raids and house arrests creates hostility against the police and makes people afraid to report things they hear.
But because Halim’s case has gotten a lot of press, and since his own detention ended, he now gets calls from people under house arrest seeking his advice. He tries to help many of these detainees, but others he says he’s turned away:
HALIM: Il faut savoir une chose quand-même. Dans les assignes là il y a au moins une vingtaine d’assignés ils sont assignés pour quelque chose, réellement. Moi, je les ai eu au téléphone. Je parle avec eux. Il y en a je les est veux de face. Ils font peur. Dans leurs dialogues, ils font peur. On peut lui dire que, ‘A beh écoute, assume assume et j’espère que dieu te guide que tu va changer parce que oh là là, tu fais peur.’
HALIM: It’s important to note one thing all the same. Among the detainees there are at least 20 of them who are really detained for something. Really. I’ve had them on the telephone. I’ve talked with them. There are some I’ve met face to fact. They’re scary, in what they say, they’re scary. You can say to him that ok look, I assume and I hope that god will guide you that you will change because oh la la, you’re scary.’
Halim says it’s important the government detains dangerous people, but only the dangerous people. The former head of intelligence Squarcini agrees. He says he also has not been pleased to see the State of Emergency extended for so long.
SQUARCINI: You need to adapt to raise in intensity and redescend as soon as possible. But afterwards it’s a political problem because if you take off the pressure and there’s an attack people will blame the political action. So there’s a problem.
And that problem leads to an environment with a lot of uncertainty, as France continues to try and find a balance between civil liberties and security.
It’s an environment Halim worries about his sons growing up in.
HALIM AND MALIKA: How are you? Ca veut dire quoi, tu sais? How are you? Fine thank you. Non non, good morning. Non. (laughter)
Halim and Malika try to get their older son, Ayoub, who’s just turning 5 to practice his English with the visiting English speaker.
While Halim was under house arrest he had to stop taking his son to his special tri-lingual pre-school, where he was learning French, English, and Arabic, because it was in another suburb. Now, even though Halim’s permitted to leave his town, he and his wife decided to keep their son at home for the rest of the year.
HALIM: On l’a enlevé deux mois. Si je le remets comme ça, tout le monde va lui dire, ‘Mais pourqoui t’étais pas là?’ Et moi je voulais jamais jamais ça. Je voulais preserver les enfant en aucun cas j’aurais plus accepté qu’un enfant ou 2 enfants 3 enfants puissent dire à mon fils, ‘Ton papa est assigné ton papa est t…’ – on sait pas.
HALIM: He’s been out for two months. If I put him back just like that everyone is going to say to him, ‘Why weren’t you here?’ And I never never want that. That I want to preserve the children from by any means. I couldn’t stand if a child or two or three kids said to my son, your father was detained and…’ – you never know.
Halim says he’s lucky that his children are too young to understand much of what’s happened over the past year, but that won’t last forever. He worries that as they grow up, the delicate balance between liberty and security in France will be stacked against them.
For Life of the Law, I’m Emma Jacobs in Paris.
Liberté and Securité was reported by Emma Jacobs and edited by Ibby Caputo with sound design and production by Jonathan Hirsch. We want to thank Alyssa Bernstein, Damian FitzPatrick for their production support. Music by Blue Dot Sessions. Steve Fox was our engineer.
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