Horrific terrorist attacks, like those of Sept. 11, 2001, have a way of sweeping away careful political reflection in favor of emotion. Hand in hand with a propensity to respond overwhelmingly with armed force comes a temptation for governments to grab more powers and exempt themselves from longstanding rules in ways that undermine the foundations of democracy.
These governments then devise legal and military tools never used before, arguing that their precursors have proved too weak against terrorism. The impulse to stop and think about checks and balances is derided as cowardice, if not treason, by the most obtuse partisans of security measures.
François Hollande, France’s Socialist president, responding to the attacks here Nov. 13, is proving no exception to the rule. On the night of the attacks, he declared that France had sustained an “act of war” by “a terrorist army.” Three days later, declaring that “France is at war,” he called on French deputies and senators to modify the Constitution to grant the presidency new “exceptional powers.” The powers laid out in the Constitution adopted in 1958 were inadequate in the unprecedented current situation, he implied, as he sought “appropriate tools” to take “exceptional measures” for the duration of this war.
Let’s not forget that the Constitution he wants to change was itself adopted in a time of war — the fight against the national liberation movement in Algeria. Charles de Gaulle, who returned to power in May 1958, imposed the new Constitution by arguing precisely that the one then in force did not allow him to wage war. So the new charter restricted the legislature’s freedoms and its powers over the executive; in particular, it granted the president “extraordinary powers” in case of “grave and immediate threat.” It also allowed the declaration of a “state of siege,” during which the president could transfer police powers to the army and create military tribunals to try those accused of external or insurrectionary attacks.
Today, even these powers are said to be inadequate — “ill adapted,” says Mr. Hollande. For example, the “state of emergency” must end after 12 days, unless Parliament decides it should be extended. The president wants a free hand for three months.
And that’s not all he wants. Consider those “exceptional measures” (as if those in the current Constitution were not already exceptional). They go much further in flouting the common conception that the Constitution protects civil liberties as the cornerstone of democratic law. Specifically, the president seeks to expand the government’s authority to revoke French citizenship for convicted terrorists born in France. Until now, loss of nationality has been reserved for those who hold dual citizenship through naturalization.
Already, an outcry has risen in France likening these proposals to endorsing a “Patriot Act à la française.” Why, for instance, call the enemy a “terrorist army,” a notion unknown to international law? Could it be to more easily evade the Geneva Conventions on the rules of war, as the George W. Bush administration did by promulgating the notion of an “enemy combatant”?
Under pressure from the conservative right in the former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s new Republican Party and the xenophobic right in Marine Le Pen’s National Front, Mr. Hollande may be hoping to curb criticism from adversaries who accuse him of “incompetence” in the fight against terrorism. But it is unlikely that Mr. Hollande can win the competition, now just beginning, over who will be the most suspicious and repressive toward France’s Muslims. As he should know, there’s always a bigger demagogue around.
Take Mr. Sarkozy. He’s suggested that 11,000 people now flagged as potential “radicals” be put under house arrest, and an even more draconian suggestion from the right is internment. Meanwhile, others in his party want France to rescind the right to French citizenship by virtue of birth — the founding principle of citizenship in France. And then there’s the National Front, representing a quarter of the electorate, piling on with calls for “the expulsion of illegals” and “zero immigration.” The Islamic State attacks took place in a France that was already tense about migration and “identity.” Mr. Hollande’s reaction can only reinforce this.
Of course we must continue to defend ourselves against terrorist attacks. But it is clear that any response that involves only “security” will be unable to address the problem. Defeating the Islamic State is a political issue, because it is a political movement with a social base that resorts to the worst acts of terrorism — not the same thing at all as a simplistically rendered “terrorist army.” The Islamic State was able to grow only because the Syrian and Iraqi Sunni Muslims, who felt abandoned by the world, saw no effective alternative to the Islamic State for relief from misrule by sectarian rivals.
The ultimate solution to this situation is not military, but political. It requires plans to stabilize and rebuild Iraq and Syria in ways that rid them not only of the Islamic State but also the other dark forces of division and repression that have plunged these countries into chaos.
This will take time. And during this time, it would be disastrous if France were to sink deeper into hysteria over security, having been lured astray by the mirage of a “war on terrorism” without any political perspective.
While defending ourselves is a must, it might have been nice had a French Socialist president stepped up as an educator, preferring pedagogy to demagogy. He should be reminding his fellow French citizens that defeating the Islamic State will come about in this “homeland of the rights of man” only through respect for democracy and our historic openness to foreigners, immigrants, people fleeing persecution — the people France has admitted only parsimoniously during Europe’s migrant crisis. For if France turns from its traditions, the Islamic State attacks will have fulfilled their purpose: to show Muslims living in France who are overwhelmingly hostile to Islamic fundamentalism that they will never be accepted as citizens on an equal footing — that, in short, France is their enemy.
If that day ever comes, there will be many more young French Muslims turning toward radical Islam.
Sylvain Cypel, a former correspondent for Le Monde, is the author of Walled: Israeli Society at an Impasse. This essay was translated by Edward Gauvin from the French.