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World & Nation

French police don’t hesitate to use broad new emergency powers

It was a typical Saturday night at the Pepper Grill, a halal burger and Tex-Mex restaurant in the Parisian suburb of St.-Ouen-l’Aumone. Staff were busy serving customers when police in full body armor, carrying rifles and riot shields, poured into the sleek red dining room.

Video from the restaurant’s surveillance cameras shows startled diners spinning around in their chairs. Police instructed them to remain seated and place their hands on the tables while they forced open doors with battering rams.

“I offered them the keys,” said the restaurant’s indignant owner, Ivan Agac. “They didn’t even answer me.”

After searching the premises for about half an hour, the officers thanked Agac and left, he said. Local officials confirmed that nothing untoward had been found.

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Such seemingly heavy-handed police operations have been drawing attention in France after 130 people were killed in shooting and bombing attacks in Paris, prompting the introduction of a rash of security measures.

The national state of emergency declared by French President Francois Hollande within hours of the Nov. 13 bloodbath gave the security services broad powers to go after suspected extremists. Across the nation, police have been breaking down doors, interrogating residents, detaining suspects or placing them under house arrest — all without a warrant or orders from a judge.

A week after the attacks, the French Parliament voted to expand the emergency powers granted under a 1955 law — enacted during France’s war in Algeria — and extend the state of emergency for three months. The new regulations make it easier for the authorities to shut down mosques, community associations and websites deemed to pose a threat to public order. At least three mosques accused of “preaching hate” have been closed since last week.

The aggressive moves are seen as an attempt by the country’s leaders to regain the trust of a shocked and frightened public after two major terrorist strikes in less than a year. But some human rights groups worry that the measures endanger the country’s cherished civil liberties and could further alienate Muslim communities that have long felt isolated and aggrieved.

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Since the November attacks, more than 2,200 raids have been carried out, more than 230 people detained and 350 placed under house arrest, according to figures released this week.

Many of those being swept up in the crackdown are people flagged as potential threats in the security services’ notorious “S files.”

Lawyers with clients on the watch list contend that the evidence against them is in many cases scant — attendance at a mosque that is under surveillance, for example, or a person’s social media posts.

Under the emergency rules, police no longer need hard evidence that a suspect is involved in terrorism activities to carry out searches or detain the person. As of Wednesday, 13 people had filed complaints challenging the legality of their house arrest, all of which were rejected, said French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve.

One of the complainants said he was confined to his home 12 hours a day and required to check in with police four times during the other 12 hours, making it impossible to work.

Cazeneuve defended the emergency measures in an address Wednesday, saying they had led to 346 legal cases. In 15 days, police had recovered 334 weapons, a third of the number recovered last year, he said.

“It is terrorism that threatens liberties today,” Cazeneuve said, “not the state of emergency.”

Agac, who opened his restaurant two years ago, is not opposed to the police carrying out searches. But he said, “There’s a way to do it, and this is not it.... People are tired of being targeted when they have nothing to reproach themselves.”

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He said he had no idea why the authorities would suspect the Pepper Grill, which attracts a diverse clientele, Muslim and non-Muslim, in a mostly middle-class neighborhood. All the officers would tell him is that the Nov. 21 raid was ordered by the local prefect under the state of emergency regulations.

There have been other instances of what French media call “abusive” raids.

In Nice, in the south of France, a 6-year-old was treated for minor injuries to the head and neck from shards of wood when police broke down the door to the family’s apartment at 4:30 a.m. The child’s father was thrown to the ground and handcuffed, according to news reports. Police later acknowledged they had the wrong address.

“I understand that the police are working under difficult circumstances, but they must be careful,” the father told the newspaper Nice-Matin. “When I saw my daughter bleeding, it was like a knife to the heart.”

Cazeneuve said he had issued a circular to local prefects reminding them of the strict rules under which searches are to be carried out.

“The state of emergency does not signify the abandonment of a state of law,” he said. “We will fight terrorism, and we will defeat it, with the weapons of the republic, of democracy, and with the strength of our values.”

Hollande has said that he would like to make changes to the constitution to more effectively deal with the threat posed by terrorism, raising concern among human rights activists that some of the emergency rules could be extended or become permanent.

He has also said that he wants French law to allow dual nationals, including people born in France, to be stripped of their citizenship and barred from the country if convicted of terrorism-related offenses.

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The government’s tough stance has broad support among the French public. Last month, lawmakers in both houses of Parliament voted overwhelmingly to expand its emergency powers, with little debate.

“I think the government reacted well, and the minister of interior did what was necessary,” said Christian Pitou, a former primary school teacher who stopped by the Bataclan concert hall recently to pay his respects to the many people who died there last month. “There will be some excesses in terms of human rights, but we are in exceptional circumstances, which require exceptional measures.”

Some dissenting voices have emerged, however. A number of labor unions and other nongovernmental groups protested a ban on public marches and the use of the emergency rules to place 26 environmental activists under house arrest for the duration of a high-profile global climate conference. Security officials said the activists had a history of taking part in violent protest, and police needed to remain focused on the terrorism threat.

Tensions erupted Monday when a group of protesters chanting “State of emergency, police state” clashed with officers at Paris’ Place de la Republique. Police fired tear gas to disperse the demonstrators, some of whom hurled bottles, shoes and other projectiles at them.

Benedicte Jeannerod, France director for Human Rights Watch, said the country already had robust anti-terrorism laws in place when a French satirical magazine and a kosher market were attacked in January. After that deadly assault, lawmakers voted to greatly expand the government’s powers to spy on its citizens, including the use of new technology to collect and analyze metadata on millions of Internet users.

“We believe these different measures carry risks of abuse because they consist primarily of increasing the authority of the Ministry of Interior and limiting judicial authority and oversight,” Jeannerod said.

Rights activists caution that the state of emergency could prove counterproductive, and play into the hands of extremists, if police appear to single out segments of the population that already feel stigmatized and discriminated against.

“We are paying the price for the blatant failures of the security services,” said Yasser Louati, spokesman for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France. “People feel like the government is declaring war on Muslims and not on terrorists.”

Special correspondent Kim Willsher contributed to this report.

Twitter: @alexzavis


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