How have the movements of our daily lives changed in France since the terrorist attacks in Paris last year? American lawyer in Paris, Christopher Mesnooh, explains to INSPIRELLE readers what the extension of an “emergency state” in France means to expats living here, and discusses the hot debate on which measures keep us safe.
For expats whose jobs, spouses or dreams brought them to France, 2015 was a year when one could legitimately wonder whether the pleasures of life in this country were going to be compromised by the increasingly alarming trajectory of violence and tension which resulted from the attacks of January and November. The refrain of “they shall not win” could not eradicate a general feeling of unease felt by many Parisians – and not only expats – in the weeks after November 13.
Authorities granted extraordinary powers
The Government took two steps which have been controversial: the declaration of an “état d’urgence“ in France, and the plan to strip French citizenship from persons convicted of terrorism. The state of emergency grants extraordinary powers to the police and to the Prefects, and is based on a law from 1955 (during the war of independence in Algeria). The state of emergency has since been extended a second time, through May 26, 2016.
The most notable of these powers are that a suspected person can be placed under house arrest, internet sites can be blocked if deemed sympathetic to terrorism, public meetings can be blocked, certain public meeting spots can be closed, and police raids can be carried out both day and night.
Reinforced security in symbolic places
However, the impact seen by the public was, and remains, curiously uneven. Some highly symbolic places saw an immediate reinforcement of the police presence, particularly those areas attracting large numbers of tourists. Department stores, cultural sites, supermarkets, government locations, some office buildings and shopping malls did the same by adding more police or private security guards.
Security was tightened even further around Jewish sites such as synagogues and schools. Threats against churches also led to an increased security presence, especially during the Christmas season. Certain mosques have also been the beneficiary of reinforced security measures.
Other locations continued on an “as is” basis. The Métro and RER systems, the buses, and the vast majority of stores, remain uncontrolled. The Gare du Nord, for example, with its trains going to London, Brussels, Amsterdam and Germany, are not overly encumbered by police officers. And many of the private security personnel present last November have vanished as 2015 turned into 2016.
Inconclusive results of expanded powers
However, the results of the expanded powers of this state of emergency, as of mid-February, have not been conclusive. 3,000 home raids were carried out, 600 weapons found, 10 mosques closed, 400 individuals have been placed under house arrest (a majority remained so as of middle February), and a limited number of criminal cases brought on the basis of terrorist activities.
The Government replied that, while the visible results were not as dramatic as some people had hoped, it was nonetheless able to both prevent future acts and obtain valuable information in the long-term struggle against both terrorism and individuals tempted to join ISIS in Syria or Iraq.
Questions over French citizenship for dual nationals
The second legislative response proposed by the Government is a draft bill currently under Parliamentary review to strip dual nationals of their French citizenship if convicted for terrorism or acts against the French State.
Many observers see this as the creation of two types of French people: those whose nationality cannot be removed from them, and the others. It is also unclear how this would work if, as some persons propose, it were also to be applied to French people with no second nationality, since it would then lead to the creation of stateless persons.
Parliamentary debates and political jockeying about the state of emergency and the bill to strip citizens of their nationality will not, however, impact foreigners, who will continue to go about their daily activities with little change.
Impact on daily life remarkably modest
It should be reiterated that the impact on day-to-day activity has been, for most Parisians, remarkably modest. Tourism is down considerably, in particular from Asia, but people will not forever stay away from the world’s most beloved city. Opening a bag for a cursory inspection is not, at the end of the day, particularly onerous.
But Jewish sites will continue to benefit from maximum protective measures, as anti-Semitism remains an open sore with no short-term prognosis for improvement. French citizens of the Muslim faith or culture will continue to be viewed with suspicion and even, in some cases, outright hostility. And everyone will remain a bit edgy as no one can be certain that other attacks will not be forthcoming.
Paris has dealt with terrorism in its streets in the 1980s and the 1990s, so it was exposed to political violence before the United States. Unresolved issues of integration, immigration, economic stagnation and cultural identity will ensure that tensions within French society continue.
Being intelligently prudent, remaining well informed of local current events in France, and attempting to steer the middle ground between compulsive paranoia and total indifference to world events remain, in my opinion, an expat’s best line of defense.
Perhaps, in the final analysis, some relief can be had by looking at the U.S. Department of State’s website, where, under the sections for “Travel Warnings” and “Travel Alerts”, France does not appear. And the approach of spring will ensure that the assertion of life over death and joy over grief will, bit by bit, return to the streets of this most marvellous city. For more specific information on security in Paris, consult the website of the American Embassy in Paris.