France: Freedom and Security in the Wake of Charlie Hebdo

Soldier at Gare de Lyon, Paris 2015 / Wikimedia Commons / Liveteve

An attack claimed by the terrorist network Al-Qaeda
On January 7 at noon, news channels keep repeating: “Attacks on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, at least 11 dead.” The media are quick to report the facts of a real carnage: 12 people are killed in cold blood on Wednesday morning by three presumably well-trained men with Kalashnikovs. The attackers leave the building shouting “We killed Charlie Hebdo!” The event is immediately labeled a terrorist attack. While the manhunt for the assailants begins, fear sets in slowly. Flags are flown at half-mast for the rest of the week, people gather, meet, the town is silent, in shock. Thursday 8 January is declared a national day of mourning, which is very rare in our country. These men killed not only people, but also freedom, the freedom of the press, the freedom of laughter and of course, the feeling of safety of an entire society.

The next day only, France is hit a second time: Another attack happens this morning, executed by a fourth man. A female police officer is murdered in the open street, followed by a shootout with hostages in a Kosher grocery store in the suburbs of Paris. People could watch the police operation live. The author of the massacre is killed during the operation, he causes four additional victims. Meanwhile at the other end of town, the Charlie Hebdo attackers, identified by the police, take a hostage in a print shop. They shoot rounds at the police officers who come after them and are finally gunned down as well.  Freedom of religion, thought and, once again, the feeling of security of the French people are being affected.

First measures
The same evening, the French Prime Minister states that he considers new security laws. Faced with violence, incomprehension and fear, the French nation and its citizens are united. They need to get together, to express their views.  Every day the world pays tribute, every night people assemble everywhere in the world. Everyone becomes “Charlie” or rather, Charlie becomes everyone. On Sunday, January 11, millions of people march the streets of France and the world. The procession in Paris [1.5 million participants, PiG] brings together heads of states and governments at the side of the French people. We all walked for freedom, our silence was punctuated by waves of applause. The applause was more than just an expression of solidarity: It was addressed to the thousands of police officers, CRS officers [French riot control forces, PiG] and soldiers who surrounded the demonstration. This is how Charlie Hebdo revived a sense of freedom and security after all. It became obvious that not the punishment of crimes, but the prevention of increasingly violent crimes was the aim of the fight against terrorism.

Plan Vigipirate Alert Levels February 2015 / Wikimedia Commons / Liveteve

Plan Vigipirate Alert Levels February 2015 / Wikimedia Commons / Liveteve

A “plan Vigipirate”, nothing too exceptional
A “plan Vigipirate” [France’s national security alert system, PiG] was soon set up. In fact, the system was in place for a long time already, only the threat level was increased. This means that for a certain period of time the security level at public places and areas known as “sensitive” is raised, security controls at public buildings are reinforced. In Paris, police and CRS are everywhere. Not visible maybe, but present. Sometimes this is reassuring. The procedures for “suspicious packages” in the subway and train stations are now well managed by everyone. 10,000 soldiers were deployed into the area. We see them with their shotguns, stationed in front of Jewish schools or mosques, and meanwhile also churches. More than 200 incidents were reported in the Paris region after the attacks.

Some consider that to accept such a police protection program is to give in to fear. Others prefer such a “temporary” protection. But is it really temporary? Two months ago, a plot to attack a church near Paris was foiled by the police. The government announced that it will put all places of worship under surveillance. Therefore we are in a “state of permanent exception” for enhanced security. This comes at a price. Three months after the Charlie Hebdo attacks many CRS members are on sick leave, exhausted by the Vigipirate scheme which is in force since January. Plus, mobilizing 10.000 soldiers produces costs of about 1 million Euro per day.

The fight against terrorism, a social issue?
How to fight radicalization in a society when it is not visible? Many measures existed in France well before January 2015, such as: Empowering the government to refuse imam ordinations, segregating radicalized prison inmates, depriving terrorists of their French nationality, monitoring the internet. Some measures were however only addressed to foreigners, such as measures to prevent jihadists from returning to France and to expel radical Islamists.

Yet the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly were all French. These jihadist assassins have grown up in our cities. They failed in our schools and learned to hate in our prisons. The issue of terrorism joint quickly those of youth, education, religion, radicalism and equally crime, prison and rehabilitation. From there, the path leads sure enough to the issues of immigration and integration. And as always, it also comes back to the problems of immigration and integration. All this without even touching on the rise in anti-Semitic and islamophobic violence that take places in France since a few months. As a consequence, measures against religious extremism and against terrorism converge into each other.

From the Patriot Act to the “loi sur les renseignements”
Since a few months, the discussion turns around new law proposals alternates with news about the attack investigations. Suspects are arrested and attacks are foiled. We know now that other attacks will be inevitable, and that the security measures taken are necessary. The investigations reveal both the extent of terrorist networks in France and the deficiencies of the security system, the police and the secret services. The reinforcements in the fight against terrorism have already cost 940 million euros (Michel Sapin, minister for economic affairs). What is more: Does such an ultra-protective society not threaten our democratic rights as citizens?

The idea of ​​a French Patriot Act was quickly raised and then discarded. The Socialist Party later proposed a “national pact against terrorism”, several measures regarding the police and the justice system (more jobs, investments, functionality improvements), the training of Muslim chaplains and the registration of delinquents convicted for terrorist acts have been implemented or, where already existing, improved. At European level the struggle centers around the exchange of information obtained by the police and the justice system between the authorities of the member states as well as of third countries, leaving aside joint measures in foreign and security policy.

Finally, it’s the “loi sur les renseignements” [Intelligence services act, PiG], which is currently being discussed in the Assemblée Nationale [lower house of the French parliament, PiG], that proves to be very controversial. This law, which is being prepared for almost a year, offers the secret services a wide margin of discretion. Not only their scope of intervention seems very broad, but also the choice of surveillance means at their disposal: Automated threat detection by monitoring internet surfing patterns, extended electronic surveillance and new tools to collect information and internet communications, particularly in international matters. The question remains whether the control authority set up to supervise the process will have a suitable structure and sufficient power to protect French citizens from “mass surveillance”.

The snake bites its own tail
France, finding its values under savage assault, did not survive the Charlie Hebdo attacks unscathed. The fight against terrorism constitutes a menace to freedom, on many levels.  The media played a significant role in the manhunt and the police and military operations. The prosecution and punishment of acts of “apologie du terrorisme” [“advocating terrorism“] are highly likely to leave a stain on the freedom of expression. The important role of caricatures, whether they are funny or blasphemous, should be kept in mind in a society where humour and religion are tied to the freedom of expression.

Despite all this, a greater awareness of the problem and a spirit of solidarity rise in France. As the birthplace of human rights France is since January also a place of thoughts and debates over society, with the overall aim to ensure the fragile balance between freedom and security as well as possible.


Translated from French by Rüdiger Morbach. The original version can be found here:
Thaïs Payan – La France, la liberté et la sécurité après Charlie Hebdo