France's biggest ever criminal trial opens on September 8 in Paris over the November 2015 terrorist attacks, which killed 130 people at bars, restaurants, a football stadium and the Bataclan concert hall in the French capital. The attacks marked a turning point in French anti-terror legislation. FRANCE 24 looks back on six years of tightening anti-terror legislative measures and debates on civil liberties.
France declared a state of emergency on the evening of the November 13, 2015 after the deadliest terror attacks on French soil in modern history left 130 people dead in the Paris region. The government pushed through fresh anti-terror laws, granting police and intelligence agencies extended powers, as the country faced a wave of further attacks in French cities and towns, such as Nice, St-Étienne-du-Rouvray, Villejuif and Rambouillet.
The state of emergency expired in November 2017, when President Emmanuel Macron replaced it with a tough anti-terror law. The new law permanently legalised several aspects of the state of emergency – such as extended police powers to search homes, restrict movement or close radical religious sites.
France has a long history of anti-terror legislation, dating back to the 19th century, when the state adopted exceptional provisions under wartime regulations. A wave of Iran-sponsored terrorist attacks in 1986, which left 14 dead and nearly 250 wounded in Paris, led the French government to landmark anti-terror legislation, which provides the foundation of the country’s anti-terror legal architecture to this day.
The September 9, 1986 law instituted a centralised counterterrorism system that involves specialised prosecutors and investigating judges working in close cooperation with the intelligence services.
The “judicial preemptive approach” enables a flexible response to evolving terror threats, according to proponents. But civil rights defenders say the tough counterterror laws compromise liberties and procedural guarantees necessary to ensure fair trials.
House searches without judicial approval
The November 2015 attacks – which came months after the January “Charlie Hebdo attacks” that saw 17 people killed in a three-day terror spree – sparked a spate of ever-tightening security and counterterror measures.
Following the carnage at the Bataclan concert hall and other Parisian spots, then French president François Hollande published a decree imposing a state of emergency for an initial period of 12 days. The measure was extended several times after terror threats or attacks, such as the horrific 2016 truck attack in the southern French city of Nice, which killed 86 people on Bastille Day.
The state of emergency allowed police to search homes and place people under house arrest without prior judicial approval. Groups or associations that were deemed to “severely undermine public order” could also be shut down directly by the government.
"There was indeed an increase in the number of anti-terrorism laws from 2015, if we consider the various legal extensions as such. But they were logical and necessary, given the context," Jean-Philippe Derosier, a constitutional expert, told FRANCE 24.
Splits in Socialist party, but new laws continue
When Manuel Valls became prime minister in March 2014, he decided to reform France's counter-terrorism policies. A law allowing security officers on public transportation to carry out security pat-downs and baggage searches was passed on March 22, 2016 – the day Brussels was hit by a deadly Islamist attack.
A debate raged in early 2016 over then French president François Hollande's proposal to strip dual-nationality terrorists of their French citizenship and deport them. The proposed constitutional amendment profoundly split his Socialist government and led to the resignation of the justice minister, Christiane Taubira. Hollande eventually dropped the controversial plan after realising that a compromise on the issue was "out of reach".
But his Socialist government did not stop there. A new law targeting the financing of organised crime and terrorism was promulgated in June 2016, giving judges and prosecutors new powers of investigation, including night searches of private properties in life-threatening terror-related cases. It also increased their surveillance capacities.
The truck attack in Nice on July 14, 2016 led to a further tightening of the law, with harsher penalties for those convicted of "criminal association in relation to a terrorist undertaking". A new provision also made it possible to shut down places of worship promoting radical ideas.
State of emergency measures become normal law
When Emmanuel Macron came to power in May 2017, he extended the state of emergency one last time, in July 2017. But Macron then pushed for a strong anti-terror legislation that took several emergency measures and made them normal criminal and administrative practice
"Since 2017, there have been several security laws, or attempts to pass harsh security laws. Several bills have been rejected by the Constitutional Council," said Derosier.
Macron's anti-terror law was promulgated on October 30, 2017. It allows police to establish "security perimeters", where individuals and vehicles can be searched. Other measures include the closure of religious establishments promoting radical ideas, and the use of passenger name records (PNR) to monitor suspicious travellers
"It is a completely hypocritical law in which emergency provisions have been introduced into the law by modifying some of the terms," Sébastien Pietrasanta, a former MP and French expert on terrorism, told FRANCE 24.
"We have switched to a concept of preemptive struggle against terrorism since we are not waiting anymore for something to happen before acting. At the same time, we must recognise that police do need such means to prevent attacks. When does an investigation require house searches or house arrests? It is up to the investigators to know how far to go," added Pietrasanta.
Legislate or communicate?
Meanwhile the French government was already planning to tighten its 2017 anti-terror law to deal with the release of people detained for acts linked to terrorism. Around 250 inmates are due to be released by the end of 2022, according to the interior ministry. To address this new situation, the French parliament adopted legislation subjecting convicted terrorists to two years of administrative follow-ups after their release from prison.
The horrifying assassination of French schoolteacher, Samuel Paty, who was beheaded on October 16, 2020 after displaying Prophet Mohammed caricatures during a class debate, reminded the country that the terror threat still loomed large. The French government reacted by pushing through a new "anti-separatism" law aimed at fighting Islamic radicalism.
The legislation includes several provisions against online hate speech, the protection of civil servants, and tightened oversight of NGOs and religious associations deemed suspect by the state. It also strengthens the state's arsenal against forced marriages, polygamy, and the delivery of virginity certificates. The Constitutional Council gave its green light to the bill with only minor changes in August 2021, prompting Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin to tweet that it was "excellent news for the Republic".
In several cases, adopting new anti-terror laws is a way for the government to appear tough in its response to Islamist attacks. "Also, it is often a political communication exercise," said Derosier.
Pietrasanta conceded that, "considering the evolution of the terrorists' techniques, it is necessary to update the laws. But,” he added rhetorically, “should we really legislate each time the techniques evolve?"
This article was translated from the original in French.