One year ago, following the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris at the Bataclan theatre and the Stade de France, French President Francois Hollande declared a state of emergency—an exceptional situation reserved for periods of existential threat to the Republic. In the name of combatting terrorism, police officers across the country have been authorised to undertake “administrative searches” at their discretion. Within two months of the declaration, 3021 searches had taken place across the country, with more than 500 illegal weapons seized. The state of emergency will remain in force until January of next year.
Criticism of the policy is widespread. Groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Défenseur des Droits have claimed that the State of Emergency has been used as a justification for increased racial profiling by the police without the requirement of any prior judicial authorisation. Pierre Alonso, writing for Libération, has strongly criticised the perceived arbitrariness of the measures taken, noting that the overwhelming majority of them have affected Muslims.
Yet, walking around Paris nothing seems to have changed enormously. Beneath the surface though, tensions are simmering. You get your first hint of this at any of the city’s large metro stations when you find yourself weaving around obelisk-like soldiers who, absurdly powerful guns in hand, silently stare down the passengers getting off each incoming train.
One evening at Sacré-Cœur, I see two young Arab men being searched by police. A young woman, a scarf relaxedly tied around her head, is sitting on a bench next to them—staring with a patient blankness into the space in front of her. The whole process is astonishingly undignified; the men are spun around, with the armed officers brusquely patting them down. Items are snatched out of their pockets; phones, wallets, tissues and handwritten notes—all of which are intensely scrutinised. Finally one officer gives a nod and, without a word, the police disperse back into the throngs of selfie-stick wielding tourists. They’d found nothing
Afterwards I wander over to the group, who are still sitting on the bench. Nobody seems to be in the mood for questions. In fact there’s a fair bit of nervous shuffling after I say I’m writing an article, and when I ask for their names the response is a curt “we’re from the Maghreb.” Once I start asking questions about the search itself though, the young woman opens up. Gesticulating towards me with an intensity of feeling that had been nowhere to be seen during the minutes prior she exclaims “they see exactly what they want to see, two men of colour”, grabbing the skin on one of the men’s arm as if to clarify. “For them that’s enough.”
The French Interior Minister, Bernard Cazaneuve, has repeatedly iterated that the police will continue to operate in a manner consistent with the rule of law, and that the State of Emergency will not be permanent. However, with Amnesty International declaring the “restrictions of human rights” were “beyond what was strictly required by the exigencies of the situation”, and the current state of emergency already having been extended three times, the reality of these statements remains in question.