Security comes before liberty in France's new 'normal'

France's new normal gives police and soldiers widespread powers of search and detention. That's perceived as necessary to protect the security of its citizens, and of free-spending tourists.

With tourists returning in droves, France ready to enshrine laws that keep them feeling safer

Tourists are returning to France reassured by the tight security in the wake of extremist attacks. (Francois Mori/Associated Press)

The smell is pungent, unmistakable. Garlic at 10 a.m. seeping through the street. And there, sitting at a table on the sidewalk outside a Paris café is the source — a couple speaking Russian, eating snails in garlic and butter.

A few streets away at an outdoor market, people speaking Chinese stand slurping oysters and taking selfies at a seafood stall, while the owner stealthily pours wine for them into the newly empty shells.

The tourists are back and French merchants are doing everything to keep them coming. Escargots at 10 a.m.? Pas de problème. The same goes for wine on the half-shell poured illegally without a liquor licence.

The French government is just as keen to keep them coming, even at the price of fierce criticism, nationally and internationally, over security measures that seem to deviate from the French tradition of liberty, equality and fraternity.
People walk past the renovated La Belle Equipe café in Paris in March 2016. Numerous people died here in a Nov. 13, 2015, attack. (Michel Euler/Associated Press)

First, the numbers. Paris is once again the most visited city in the world, a record 7.65 million hotel nights in the first six months of 2017, as reported by the Paris tourist board, up almost 11 per cent.

But almost two years ago, in the wake of the attacks that killed 130 people in the capital, tourist visits to France dropped by more than five per cent. The Japanese and the Russians cancelled in droves. Another murderous attack, with a truck in Nice in the summer of 2016 killing more than 80, produced another wave of cancellations.

But in 2017 tourist numbers have surged — 1.5 million more visits than a year ago. Hotel reservations are at record levels. Leading the return are the Americans (more than 1.14 million into the summer) and the Chinese (527,000). The Japanese have also rushed back, with a rise of 62 per cent. Russian numbers are up by more than 50 per cent.

Emergency measures ensure tourists keep coming

According to the Paris prefect of police, an important reason for the influx is the anti-terrorist measures under the state of emergency in place since the attacks of November 2015. "This security plays a role in attracting visitors," Michel Delpuech said. "Paris is a safe city." 

More than 7,000 soldiers patrol the streets of French cities. And the police have draconian powers to arrest, search and hold suspected terrorists.

According to the French interior minister, the emergency measures have helped the authorities break up 12 plotted attacks since the beginning of the year. There have been sporadic attacks on police and soldiers, but new episodes of mass killing so far have been prevented.

French President Emmanuel Macron meets with police officers as he visits gendarmerie barracks in Sathonay-Camp, near Lyon, central France. His new anti-terrorism law would enshrine police powers. (Laurent Cipriani/Associated Press)

The new French president, Emmanuel Macron, came to power in May saying he would protect the French, and the tourists. But he also promised to end the emergency regulations and return the country to the normal rule of law.

But "normal" does not mean a return to former freedoms. The new anti-terrorist law introduced in September simply incorporates most of the key measures now in place under the state of emergency.

Police powers couched in softer language

Police will still have vast powers of search and seizure without prior approval of a judge. Without a judge they will be able to put people under house arrest, or rather, under a slightly looser version, street or district arrest, for up to a year.

The first measure is called "visits and searches," a public relations term attempting to soften a hard law. House or street arrest is re-baptized "individual measures of administrative control."

The authorities will be able to close places of worship if they are thought to incite violence. Critics say that targets mosques and Muslims.

The power to stop, search and hold suspects has been drastically expanded to cover the 20-kilometre "border zones" around airports, train stations and ports as well as existing borders. Those stopped could be held for 12 hours instead of six as is now the case. One study, in the national newspaper Le Monde, estimated that "border zones" would now expose two-thirds of the population of France to these measures.

Soldiers stand guard outside the Eiffel Tower in Paris. (Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters)

And thousands of soldiers will continue to patrol the streets.

Criticism from constitutional and legal experts, inside and outside the country, has been strong.

France's Ombudsman Jacques Toubon led the charge, calling the new bill a "poison pill law." Toubon is hardly a soft-hearted leftie. He was a senior member and justice minister of France's right-wing government in the '90s.

'Permanent emergency'

Two UN rapporteurs, or experts, on human rights have written to the French government. In their letter, Michel Forst and Fionnuala Ni Aolain complain that the bill could create a "permanent emergency situation" in France, and is a risk to liberty, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion. "We want France to do better so that it doesn't inspire bad practice in other countries," they wrote.

French ministers are motivated by fear, Toubon says. "Politicians are terrified of being criticized for not taking measures that might prevent a future terror attack. But democracies can't respond to barbarians by shifting onto their ground, and putting the protection of liberties at risk."

The French government is undeterred. It has polls showing 57 per cent of the public like the measures and still want the soldiers on the streets. Almost 90 per cent of those polled like the hugely expanded "border zones."

Immigrant law coming next

Immigration experts worry openly that the big border zones are a back door to round up and deport unwanted immigrants. They point to another bill now being drawn up that would allow the authorities to hold illegal immigrants picked up in such zones for 90 days instead of 45 now. 

And they cite President Macron's own words: "We must throw more out!" Referring to immigrants, his words amounted to marching orders delivered to France's prefects, some of the state's most senior officials, in a speech in early September.

The bill will almost certainly become law. The new government has a large majority and watches the polls. It wants to calm the fears of the French, and it wants the tourists to keep eating snails and oysters in record numbers in the run-up to the Olympics in 2024, which France will host for the first time in 100 years.