Macron’s counter-terror bill risks France’s human rights record, say UN experts

Liberty and security ‘under threat’ from bill proposing to end France’s state of emergency by transferring special police powers into permanent law.

A tough new French counter-terrorism bill could have discriminatory repercussions, especially for Muslims, and puts the country’s human rights record at risk, UN experts have said.

The bill proposed by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, is designed to allow France to end its two-year state of emergency by transferring certain exceptional emergency policing powers into permanent law.

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, a special UN rapporteur, said the bill contains provisions that could harm the rights to liberty, security, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion.

Another UN rapporteur, Michel Forst, warned that the bill, being debated by the French parliament, risked creating a “permanent emergency situation”, handing the state special policing powers without the proper control of judges and the legal system.

Forst told France Inter radio that the first people targeted by the law would be those simply “considered suspect”, including Muslims.

“The UN is watching France on this also because of France’s international impact and standing,” he said. “What France does is not trivial. We want France to do better so it doesn’t inspire bad practice in other countries.”

In a letter to the French authorities, the UN experts warned that the new anti-terrorism bill had a “vague definition of terrorism” that exacerbated fears that “emergency powers could be used in an arbitrary way”.

France has been living under a nationwide state of emergency since Islamic State jihadists struck Paris in November 2015, killing 130 people in a series of attacks on bars, restaurants, the national stadium and a rock gig at the Bataclan concert hall.

The special police powers granted under the state of emergency hark back to the Algerian war in the 1950s. The exceptional measures allow police to conduct house raids and searches without a warrant or judicial oversight, including at night, and give extra powers to officials to place people under house arrest outside the normal judicial process and to close places of worship. They also allow for restrictions on large gatherings.

How to leave the state of emergency, which has been renewed several times since 2015 and is still in effect, was one of the first challenges for Macron, elected as president this year after a runoff against the far-right Front National’s Marine Le Pen. Politicians have been wrestling with the problem of how to exit the state of emergency without looking weak while France remains under a terrorist threat.

On Bastille Day last year, the then Socialist president, François Hollande, told the nation he planned to end the state of emergency. But hours later, a truck driver ploughed into crowds on Nice’s seafront, killing 86 people in one of France’s worst terrorist attacks. The state of emergency was not lifted but instead was renewed several times over the following months – despite a parliament security committee questioning the efficiency of the measures.

Macron has vowed to reinforce counter-terrorism laws in order to “organise a well-managed exit from the state of emergency”. He wants to end the state of emergency at the start of November.

But his anti-terrorism bill involves enshrining most of the special emergency police powers into common law, so that exceptional limits to freedoms intended for a special period of time would become the norm. The bill would make permanent certain special policing powers including placing suspects under house arrest, closing places of worship, expanding police “stop-and-search” operations in designated areas. It would also allow house raids and searches – now renamed “house visits” – with what critics say is insufficient judicial oversight.

Macron’s interior minister, Gérard Collomb, called the bill “a lasting response to a lasting threat”. It is expected to be passed in parliament next month.

But French human rights groups, lawyers and academics have warned that the bill marks “a step back” for the rule of law. The historian Patrick Weil said the law would “divide and stigmatise”, increasing stop and searches based on appearance or skin colour.

The veteran lawyer Henri Leclerc, a former president of the French Human Rights League, told Libération this month: “Macron is exiting the state of emergency not in order to get rid of it, but to make it permanent.” He warned that the bill was aimed at reassuring the public but its measures targeted people who might be “suspected” of terrorism. “This is a law about suspects, and it’s dangerous.”