Security: too much or not enough?
PARIS: Outside the Carillon bar, where flowers piled up over bloodstains almost one year ago, the pavement tables are packed again with regulars from the hipster Parisian neighborhood. Drinks, cigarettes and laughter outside the red-fronted cafe suggest a recovery from the November 13 attacks, which saw it sprayed with automatic gunfire. Opposite sits the Petit Cambodge restaurant, another business thriving again after being targeted by the Islamic State (IS) extremists who killed 130 people during their rampage across the French capital.
But beneath the outward signs of normality and defiance, some Carillon patrons betray the anxieties felt keenly across a deeply changed country. Helene Lebecque, a 40-year-old who works in a nearby boutique, said on the surface that nothing has changed. “The bar’s full, it’s party time. You’d never know,” she said. But she also confided that the bloodshed is never far from her thoughts. “There isn’t a night when I go to the Carillon that I don’t think about it.” She is far from alone. Many Parisians still confess to being troubled by the intrusion of unwelcome memories while enjoying themselves in bars or restaurants.
The sheer regularity of recent jihadist atrocities in France-at the magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, last November in Paris, this July in Nice-has compounded the sense of trauma. In between, a host of IS-linked killings, from the murder of a priest in his church to the fatal knifing of a police officer and his partner at home, have deepened the sense of a country under siege. The fact that most of the Paris gunmen were young French or Belgian men only added to people’s sense of betrayal.
Some remain wary of public transport. The likelihood of another terror strike has become macabre dinner-time conversation. Police sirens and suspect packages are an almost daily irritant. “We are at war,” President Francois Hollande declared in his first words to a special joint session of parliament four days after the Paris attacks in martial tones that would come to define the year. The sight of troops in combat gear patrolling tourist sites or in front of public buildings are a visible reminder of this new reality. News at the end of the summer holidays that schools would require children to simulate fleeing a terror attack did nothing to reassure parents about the ongoing threat.
In the face of these fears, the French state has got tougher-upping its military commitment against IS in Syria and Iraq and rolling out drastic measures at home to tackle extremists. Hollande declared a state of emergency after the attacks which remains in place, giving police the power to raid homes at night, detain people more easily and operate without judicial oversight. Mosques deemed to be spreading hate have been closed, while more than 4,000 raids have been carried out under the state of emergency, many at night targeting suspected radicals. Only one in eight has led to an arrest, however, and a parliamentary commission that assessed the state of emergency judged it to be “useful but limited.”
A coalition of international human rights groups was more damning, concluding in June after a fact-finding mission that “profound damage to individual freedoms” was being done. It has also led to a “worsening of the existing stigmatization of part of the population,” referring to France’s five million Muslims who feel targeted by the measures. Judges have also seen their powers enhanced, with new legislation allowing them to sentence extremists convicted of terrorist offences to up to 30 years in prison, compared with 10 years previously.
The number of active terror cases before the courts has tripled to 350 so far this year, compared with 126 last year and just 26 in 2013. In prison, convicts considered to be dangerous Islamist radicals are now held in isolation to prevent them converting fellow prisoners. Sociologist Michel Wieviorka detects a new fracture developing in French society ahead of presidential elections next year. On one side is “the call for more security and more exceptional measures,” he says. On the other, “those who argue for the rule of law and individual freedoms,” he said.
This can be seen across the political divide, with Hollande’s Socialist government saying that the state’s security arsenal is complete. But the centre-right favorites to win next year’s vote, Alain Juppe or Nicolas Sarkozy, want even greater powers for security forces, more police and increased prison places. Sarkozy has gone as far as proposing preventative detention for anyone suspected by security forces of being a radical, even if they have not committed a crime. “French society is in a situation unprecedented since World War II,” concludes sociologist Gerome Truc, who has written a book on the Paris attacks. “It’s neither war, nor peace. We’ll need time to move on and to measure the consequences,” he said.- AFP