France extends state of emergency, kicking off Europe-wide debate on rights

The French prime minister on Thursday warned of a possible chemical attack and urged lawmakers to approve expanded police powers.

Jacky Naegelen/Reuters
French soldiers patrol the Christmas market on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on Thursday after last Friday's series of deadly attacks in the city.

France is at risk of a chemical or biological attack, Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned Thursday, as the country's parliament debated an expansion of police powers to combat the growing threat of Islamic State terrorism.

Valls spoke of the risk of a chemical attack amid debate on a sweeping law to extend a state of emergency that would give police significant new powers to conduct searches and detain suspects. France's lower house of parliament voted to extend the state of emergency by three months Thursday. The measure now goes to the Senate.

"We must not rule anything out," Valls told the lower house ahead of the vote, which the French Senate is expected to approve today. "I say it with all the precautions needed. But we know and bear in mind that there is also a risk of chemical or bacteriological weapons."

After the attacks Friday that killed 129 people in Paris, President François Hollande declared that France is “at war,” and French warplanes pounded Islamic State positions in its self-declared capital of Raqqa, Syria. Now French leaders are proposing a change to the Constitution that would allow the president to suspend civil liberties at home without parliamentary approval in the case of a “state of siege.”

The move cuts against many of the cherished rights French have long held about their nation. But it takes place at a time of greater fears both in France and Europe of further terrorism by actors that move more freely between the war zones of the Middle East and the more open society of Europe.

The Washington Post Thursday said the effort to extend a French state of emergency seemed “an echo of the move to push the Patriotic Act through the U.S. Congress following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.”

The BBC Thursday compiled a brief list of the enhanced powers sought. They include:

  • Extending the state of emergency for three months
  • Placing under house arrest anyone deemed to be a public threat
  • Barring suspects from communicating with each other
  • Allowing police to carry out searches at any time, without the prior approval of a judge, if the public is thought to be in danger.

The initiative follows a rare Monday address by President Hollande, long described as a pacifist, to both houses of parliament that sought to “modify the founding document of the Fifth French Republic to ‘allow public authorities to act consistently with the rule of law against terrorism,’” as Radio France International describes it.

The situation, Hollande said, is of a new situation in which the government is functioning regularly in such a way that a transfer of civilian to military power is unthinkable, “Yet, we are at war.”

RFI dove into the specifics in this way:

The changes would concern article 36, which allows the government, in the event of a “state of siege,” to transfer powers to military authorities in the event of an attack or an armed insurrection, as well as article 16, which allows the presidency to grant itself “exceptional measures” when France’s institutions or territory are confronted with a “serious and immediate” threat.

The vote is expected to pass, but some opposition lawmakers said Thursday they regretted the scope of new powers an enhanced state of emergency would allow. The Washington Post quoted leftist lawmaker Isabelle Attard, who said the new laws would theoretically allow police to detain activists campaigning for many social causes, even the battle against climate change.

“This choice is just anxiety-provoking political talk,” said Isabelle Attard, a left-leaning French politician. “This is sad. When one is president of the republic, prime minister or member of the government, we must reassure the population. If the bill is passed, there will be no limits during 3 months. A citizen’s association fighting climate change will become a possible suspect. I regret that we should pass a law under such emotional stress.”

The debate in France comes ahead of a European Union special meeting Friday in Brussels. Justice and security officials there are expected to look at curbing the trafficking of firearms, instituting tougher border checks, and giving national security services access to passenger lists on airplane, which is not currently allowed. 

Mr. Valls issued his warning just hours before French investigators announced that forensic evidence proved that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged mastermind of last Friday's deadly terror attacks in Paris, had been killed early Wednesday in a raid in the northern Parisian suburb of St. Denis. The Paris prosecutor's office said the body of Mr. Abaaoud, a Belgian national, was identified using finger, palm, and footprints.

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