Will France’s New Anti-Terrorism Laws Discriminate Against Muslims?

France's President Macron signed into law counter-terrorism measures
French President Emmanuel Macron signed a new anti-terrorism law on October 30. He tweeted: "Commitments honoured, on November 1 we will leave the state of emergency by strengthening the safety of our fellow citizens." Photo: Emmanuel Macron/Twitter

Two years after the Paris attacks, France has enshrined laws to battle terrorism, but the new powers might also be putting minority rights at stake.

France, home to 4 or 5 million Muslims – the largest Muslim population in Europe – recently approved new anti-terror laws that give police new powers, such as easier searches of people’s homes.

French President Emmanuel Macron said during the official signing that the law would allow France to “exit the state of emergency from November 1 while ensuring the security of our citizens.”

While most French people agree with the new measures, human rights groups are warning that it will unfairly discriminate Muslim people.

“Giving non-judicial officers, specifically prefects and police officers, broad discretion and broadening the scope for control practices may have intruding and discriminatory repercussions for residents of France, especially minorities, in particular for Muslims citizens,” Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, told The Globe Post.

“I am concerned about the impact of these measures on the enjoyment of the fundamental rights and freedoms, especially by minorities, because there are insufficient judicial safeguards or mechanisms in place to effectively control the exercise of executive powers in this bill,” Ms. Ni Aolain said.

She added: “France has a long and distinguished history of liberty protection, and it remains critical that fundamental constitutional guarantees and a deep history of protecting rights is not abandoned in a particular moment of crisis.”

Emergency powers have been in place in France since November 2015, after 130 people were killed in attacks carried out by Islamist suicide bombers in Paris. The new anti-terrorism law codifies those measures, such as the ability to shut down mosques and other places of worship if there is any suspicion of violence or terrorism acts on behalf of religious leaders.

It also limits judicial oversight in some matters, allowing police officers to set up security zones and conduct searches of homes and other areas without a court warrant. The new law follows other security measures including military patrols in bigger cities and a new anti-terrorism force in the presidential palace.

In a letter Ms. Aolin sent to the government on September 22, she cited “concerns that the powers may be used in an arbitrary manner.” The government says the new legislation includes safeguards, and Mr. Macron has said he is striving to balance security and liberty.

The French interior ministry has also highlighted that police are faced with individuals who could be a security risk even if they are not connected to wider terrorist groups. A couple who was planning a suicide bombing in Montpellier was arrested in February after police impromptuly raided a mosque they attended.

​But ​human rights activists point out that while France has prided itself on egalitarianism and universal democracy, the latest laws show the country is struggling to live up to its ideals.

“More Muslim people are subject to hate by French people since the attacks,” Arie Alimi, a lawyer and a member of the Human Rights League, told The Globe Post. “The new laws are about restraining freedom, and ​everything is focused on Muslims, even if that is not written in the law,” he said.

“But if you want to fight against terrorism it is impossible to think in the short term by taking power against muslims. That will only increase their feeling of being targeted and it will create a feeling of them just being muslims and not being citizens of this country. It is the opposite of what you have to do. We have to change our mentality. The only way is to increase our freedom model because terrorism wants to break our model for democracy and freedom,” Mr. Alimi​ added.