France Goes to War on Civil Liberties

Paris was the French 9/11. Here’s how France’s response differs from America’s.

<a href="">Arthur Täysikuu</a>/Flickr

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In the wake of the Paris terror attacks, many in France have said they finally understand what things were like for Americans just after September 11, 2001. The attacks have emboldened France’s conservatives and pushed liberal and moderate factions rightward. On Friday, the French parliament voted to extend a nationwide state of emergency for another three months, granting authorities broad powers to limit civil liberties in the name of combating terrorism. The French public overwhelmingly supports the move.

France has “an elected monarch, basically. And the French in general have a more positive view of the state, and government intervention.”

The rise of a police state in France may come as a surprise to Americans old enough to remember when France stood out as Europe’s greatest critic of President George W. Bush’s war on terror—a spat that peaked in 2003 when, in response to French opposition to the invasion of Iraq, the House of Representatives cafeteria rebranded its French fries “Freedom Fries.”

Nowadays, of course, just about everyone looks with disfavor on that war, which is credited with giving ISIS a foothold. Though France bombed targets in Syria on November 15, it has so far stopped short of sending in ground troops against ISIS. And, while it’s too early to tell, there’s no evidence its intelligence services are abducting or torturing terror suspects.

In other respects, though, France has embraced and even surpassed some of America’s most draconian responses to terror. In the name of security, the French public has been more willing than Americans ever were to let their government spy on citizens, conduct warrantless raids, and restrict rights of free speech and assembly.

The differences boil down to governing philosophies, says Jonah Levy, a France expert who teaches comparative politics at the University of California-Berkeley. “We have checks and balances and try to create a system in which the government does no harm,” he says. “France has a system that is designed to centralize power in the presidency and have an elected monarch, basically. And the French in general have a more positive view of the state, and government intervention.”

France’s hate speech laws “were originally aimed at genocide deniers and anti-Semites. It wasn’t so much about what we are seeing at the moment.”

Those views have deep roots. Unlike the United States, France has endured a long history of direct attacks and occupations on its soil—most recently by Germany during World War II. As a consequence, the French may be more willing than many Americans to trade civil liberties for security. France is also much closer to conflict zones in the Middle East, and up to 10 percent of its population is Muslim. (America’s Muslim population, according to the CIA’s World Factbook, is less than 1 percent.)

Although France’s hate speech laws could be used to target Islamic radicals, the country’s left also views them as an important protection for Muslims. “They were originally aimed at genocide deniers and anti-Semites,” says Julia Hall, an expert on counterterrorism and human rights for Amnesty International in London. “It wasn’t so much about what we are seeing at the moment. But now those laws are very relevant to Islamophobia.”

According to Levy, the Berkeley professor, the place where France and the United States look most alike is in their activist foreign policies: “Both countries really emphasize the universal civilizational values that they can spread, even at the point of a bayonet.”

That approach hasn’t worked too well in the Middle East, of course. And only time will tell whether either country has any new tricks to resolve the Syria crisis. In any case, here’s a breakdown of how France and the United States compare in their responses to terrorism.


United States: The USA Patriot Act, signed into law in October 2001, removed many limits on the government’s surveillance capabilities: It established “sneak and peak” warrants and roving wiretaps. Authorities could now more easily spy on religious and political groups. From 2001 until 2007, the National Security Administration monitored Americans’ international email messages and phone calls without court approval—even though the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act required it. In 2010, a federal judge ruled the program illegal.

In 2013, NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the federal government was collecting bulk metadata on virtually every American. A secret court had approved the data collection based on an interpretation of a section of the Patriot Act the Senate let lapse this past June. But the NSA can still wiretap overseas communications—not to mention view any domestic internet and call log that is at least “three hops” from a suspected international terrorist.

France: A day after the Paris attacks, President Francois Hollande declared a temporary “state of emergency, ” invoking a law enacted in 1955 in response to a colonial uprising in Algeria. Among other things, the decree lets French authorities conduct warrantless searches—there have been more than 400 since the attacks. On Friday, lawmakers voted to extend the state of emergency and expand certain powers. Police officers, for instance, may now copy data from any electronic device discovered during a raid related to terrorism.

Earlier this year, France dramatically expanded its online surveillance in response to the Charlie Hebdo attack. In May, parliament passed a law critics have dubbed the “French Patriot Act.” It allows the police to intercept and monitor electronic communications from private citizens, and it compels internet providers to install “black boxes” that will use algorithms to search for and report suspicious online activity.


United States: In the aftermath of 9/11, American police officers appear to have occasionally broken the law by arresting people they perceived as Muslim for little cause other than their ethnicity. In a lawsuit against top Bush officials that an appeals court green-lighted earlier this year, six Muslims, a Hindu, and a Buddhist allege they were wrongfully arrested, abused, locked in solitary, and detained for months before being cleared of all terrorism charges. One plaintiff was arrested after the FBI received a tip that a small grocery store where he worked was overstaffed, arousing suspicions about the “Middle Eastern men” who worked there.

France: Using powers of search and seizure granted under Hollande’s state of emergency, the French police had as of Thursday arrested and detained 63 people and placed another 118 under house arrest. On Friday, France’s parliament voted to expand these powers to let authorities place under house arrest anyone they have “serious reasons” to believe “constitutes a serious threat” to public order. Authorities can use electronic ankle bracelets and such to make sure arrestees stay put.

speech and the press

United States: The constitutional right to free speech in the United States remained in full effect in the aftermath of 9/11. Disturbing images of people jumping to their deaths from the World Trade Center led the front pages of newspapers around the country.

France: The state of emergency law authorizes the government to “control the press” by placing restrictions on everything from radio broadcasts to movies and plays. Just after the Paris attacks, the French police prevented journalists from interviewing witnesses. In the following days, France’s Interior Ministry asked social media networks such as Twitter to censor photographs of the killings and to remove keywords and posts it deemed to be pro-ISIS. Under France’s expansive hate speech laws, it is a crime to insult people based on their race, religion, or sex; to deny the Holocaust; or to advocate terrorism.

The expanded powers approved on Friday give police officers an increased capacity to block websites that “encourage” terrorism. But in extending the state of emergency, parliament removed the restrictions on journalists. Lawmakers are also reportedly considering a law that makes it easier to deport radical imams.


United States: The US Constitution guarantees “the right of people to peaceably assemble”—a right that was generally respected even after 9/11. However, a 2010 Supreme Court ruling upheld a federal law that makes it illegal to offer “material support,” including training and expert advice, to US-designated terrorist groups. Courts have also allowed the police to curtail the assembly rights of criminal gangs using “gang injunctions.”

France: The declared state of emergency allows French authorities to close any public meeting place, including public theaters. The expanded powers approved on Friday permit police to dissolve groups or associations they believe participate in, facilitate, or incite acts that are a threat to public order. Members of these groups can be placed under house arrest.

The government has invoked the state of emergency to cancel protests and marches that were planned to coincide with the COP21 climate conference.


United States: From 2001 through 2005, the Central Intelligence Agency’s extraordinary rendition program abducted an estimated 150 terrorism suspects from other countries. They were often handed off to foreign governments that tortured them on America’s behalf in pursuit of confessions and intelligence. The United Nations considers one country abducting the citizens of another a crime against humanity.

In 2002, the United States established the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba to hold terrorism suspects deemed especially dangerous. Many were waterboarded before President Barack Obama banned the practice, calling it “torture” and “a mistake.” Though Obama also pledged to close Gitmo, the notorious prison still houses 107 detainees.

France: France lacks the United States’ massive infrastructure of intelligence agencies and overseas military bases. As far as anyone knows, it has not used torture, engaged in renditions, or operated a terrorist detention facility abroad.


United States: Following the 9/11 attacks, the United States invoked NATO Article 5, which states that an attack on one ally shall be considered an attack on all. This set the groundwork for the Bush administration’s invasion of Afghanistan and later Iraq—an occupation widely believed to have given rise to ISIS.

France: Though Hollande described the Paris attacks as “an act of war,” he has stopped short of invoking NATO Article 5. Two days after the attacks, France carried out airstrikes on ISIS targets in Syria. Hollande has been working to broker US and Russian cooperation against ISIS, but so far he has not committed French ground troops to any such operation.

Right-wing response

United States: “You are either with us or against us in the fight against terror,” Bush said in November 2001, echoing the conservative drumbeat for war. Anti-Muslim hate crimes are still five times more common in America today than they were before 9/11, and Islamophobia is again on the rise. GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump has gone so far as to say he would support a registry for Muslims living in the United States.

France: Jean Marie Le Pen, the founder of France’s far-right National Front, has called for France to reinstate the death penalty and to commit convicted terrorists to the guillotine. He also wants to abolish dual citizenship and make military service of up to six months compulsory.


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