H.L. Mencken once offered this definition of democracy:
Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.
The French people voted in a young, confident Emmanuel Macron in 2017 and, among his promises to the people, was that he would lift the State of Emergency that the country had been living under since the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks. The State of Emergency, while understandable in its motivations, granted broad powers to the security forces to search, seize, and detain individuals that were engaged in terror related activities. These activities could be everything from being in the final stages of planning and preparing a terrorist attack right through to people who might have accessed a website deemed “terror related” or shown sympathy for a terrorist group. While not denying that the resulting searches, seizures, and detention netted some real terrorists, for the most part they didn’t seem very successful in nabbing dangerous people, as the New York Times reports:
Of the 3,600 house searches carried out in the first seven months after the state of emergency went into effect, only six resulted in terrorism-related criminal proceedings, according to information in a parliamentary report and a report by Human Rights Watch.
Six out of 3600 is 0.17%, by the way.
Put another way, if you came up with a way of finding terrorists that failed 99% of the time it would still be 6 times more successful than how the French state has been going about it with its home searches sans judicial review.
Back in July Emmanuel Macron pledged to lift the State of Emergency and deliver the French people a modicum of liberty once again:
“I will re-establish the freedoms of the French people by lifting the state of emergency this autumn, because these freedoms are the precondition of the existence of a strong democracy,” Macron said in an address to both houses of parliament.
Turns out that the lifting of the State of Emergency and the re-establishment of freedom was not exactly what Macron had in mind.
In the last couple of weeks it has become clear that the way that Macron intends to do this is to codify the worst parts of the State of Emergency rules and then lift the State of Emergency. Thus, he’ll be able to explain to the people that he kept his campaign promise to lift the State of Emergency while also ensuring that the State of Emergency provisions remain in force permanently. It’s not so much smoke-and-mirrors as it is flat out disregard for any thinking person in the French state.
But worst of all, the French people seem fine with it.
Again, from the New York Times reporting:
The public broadly supports the state of emergency despite its many restrictions and its deprivation of rights for those suspected of having links to terrorism. Many French have not suffered ill consequences from it, and they fear any retreat from the emergency measures will leave them more vulnerable.
Ah, the sweet smell of democracy: if it doesn’t affect me, how could it be bad? How could the State ever use these laws against me? It’s unthinkable, or at least it is to the unthinking.
“People don’t feel their liberty is threatened,” said Jérôme Fourquet, the chief pollster for IFOP, a major polling organization, which has surveyed people extensively about the trade-off between security and civil liberties. In those surveys, he said, many French have been supportive of the state of emergency and the new legislation. “They say, ‘Why should we lift it?’” he said.
The problem is that there is always going to be another terrorist attack:
Those surveyed have pointed to terrorist actions. Just this past Sunday, a knife attack at the train station in Marseille killed two 20-year-old women; a couple days earlier, what appeared to be an explosive device was found near an apartment building in Paris.
And here’s the kicker:
“The French are confident that we are in a new era,” Mr. Fourquet said, one that requires the state to have more powers in order to protect them, even if it means diminishing some civil rights.
It reminds me of the passage in George Orwell’s Animal Farm where the threat of returning to the bad old days of Mr Jones is so pervasive as to allow for all sorts of horrors to become normalized:
Surely, comrades, you do not want Jones back?” Once again this argument was unanswerable. Certainly the animals did not want Jones back; if the holding of debates on Sunday mornings was liable to bring him back, then the debates must stop. Boxer, who had now had time to think things over, voiced the general feeling by saying: “If Comrade Napoleon says it, it must be right.” And from then on he adopted the maxim, “Napoleon is always right,” in addition to his private motto of “I will work harder.”
If allowing the security forces to continue to search homes without judicial review, to detain people without charge, and to criminalize texts, websites, and even the expression of thoughts contra to the State is necessary to protect France, then who would dare speak against it?
Well, me, for one.
These are terrible laws.
They were terrible when implemented under the State of Emergency, and they will be worse when they are codified into French law permanently. I don’t doubt the motivations of the legislators or of Macron, too, but the decision to trade essential liberties to not much more than a little temporary security is disgraceful.
Of course, not everyone sees this as a trade off. Gerard Collomb, the former mayor here in Lyon and now Minister of the Interior, had this to say about the new laws:
…freedom and security are not mutually exclusive. When you strengthen security, you don’t take away civil liberties, you preserve them, and sometimes you enhance them.
Is he right? Strictly speaking, yes – but in much the same way that Macron will be correct in stating he removed the State of Emergency before the end of the year. Sure, he will lift it but the powers granted to the security forces and the State will remain under a different, permanent form. Collomb is likewise correct that strengthening security doesn’t have to mean taking away civil liberties. There are doubtless examples of this, but these laws just aren’t one of them.
The French people voted in great numbers for Macron and his vision for France. He had the advantage, of course, of a run-off election against Marine Le Pen, a candidate that many on the left and right would not or could not bring themselves to vote for, and so Macron picked up support he might otherwise not have enjoyed. It’s why he could claim two thirds support on election day, doubling the 33% who preferred the Front Nationale leader.
The French people exercised their democratic right to put Macron in charge of their security. They trusted him and his vision for France, and they endorsed that vision at the ballot box in great numbers. Now the French are getting exactly what they voted for, good and hard, as Mencken put it, and the temporary trade-off between liberty and security is about to become permanent. It’s shameful, its dangerous, and it is going to make the next step – and there will always be a next step – to remove basic freedoms from the French people all the easier to take.