Intense French policing raises concern over rights

PARIS • All over France, from Toulouse in the south to Paris and beyond, police have been breaking down doors, conducting searches without warrants, aggressively questioning residents, hauling suspects to police stations and putting others under house arrest.

The extraordinary steps are legal under the state of emergency decreed by the government after the attacks on Nov 13 in Paris that left 130 dead. Last week, Parliament voted to extend the emergency for three more months.

There have been 1,072 police searches and 139 police interrogations, and 117 people have been placed in custody, the Interior Ministry said on Monday. Many of those being swept up are among the hundreds of French who have already been flagged as potential security threats in the notorious S-files of the security services.

An indication of the lingering shock of the attacks - and the fear coursing through French society - is that few, publicly at least, are protesting against the exceptional measures.

But concern is rising, particularly in Muslim communities, that France now runs the risk of tipping steeply in favour of security at the expense of individual freedom, and of instigating tension with a Muslim population - the largest in Western Europe - that has long felt aggrieved and second-class.

"These measures are going to place a spider's web over all of France," said Ms Daniele Lochak, an emeritus professor of law at the University of Paris.

"But in a discriminatory manner, because it will concern Muslims. It's out of control."

Ms Benedicte Jeannerod of Human Rights Watch noted that "police searches and house arrests can now be ordered by the Interior Ministry and the prefects (local officials under the control of Paris) without judicial warrant".

"These extrajudicial searches... are being carried out in haste, and under pressure from public opinion and the political class."

That context, Ms Jeannerod said, can only encourage human rights abuses and mistakes.

Mr Xavier Nogueras, a Paris lawyer who represents a handful of the 180 or so under house arrest, said his clients are shouldering a burden that they do not deserve. Simple attendance at a mosque under surveillance can land someone in the S-files, he noted.

Under the house-arrest rules, his clients must report to the local police station up to four times a day. "These measures threaten individual liberties. For most of them, they can't even work any longer," he said.

The Interior Ministry has defended the measures, saying the operations "against terrorism and every threat to public order" will continue.



A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 25, 2015, with the headline 'Intense French policing raises concern over rights'. Print Edition | Subscribe