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What Does It Mean to Live in a Perpetual State of Emergency?

We asked a lawyer about the effects, and possible long-term benefits, of living in France during a time of heightened national security.

Photo by Etienne Rouillon / VICE News

This article originally appeared on VICE France

The state of emergency in France, declared the day after the attacks on the 13th of November saw 130 people killed in Paris and Saint Denis, has been extended three times in the past nine months at the request of the government and president, and with parliament's agreement. During his usual televised Bastille Day speech on Thursday, President François Hollande announced that the state of emergency wouldn't be renewed after the 26th of July.


Unfortunately, the awful events in Nice later on the 14th of July – at least 84 people killed after a lorry ploughed through a celebrating crowd – has changed this decision. While we still don't know the lorry driver's motivations – they were shot dead by the police – Hollande has confirmed the terrorist nature of the attack.

A draft law to extend the state of emergency for three months will be submitted on Tuesday in the Council of Ministers so that "parliament could review it on Wednesday and Thursday", in the words of Prime Minister Manuel Valls. To get a sense of just what this fourth renewal of a state of emergency means, we spoke to legal expert Géraldine Bovi-Hosy.

VICE: First of all, could you remind us what the state of emergency is, in legal terms?
Géraldine Bovi-Hosy: It is an exceptional system that enables the government to put in place one-off measures due to a crisis situation, like these recent terror threats. It overrules the usual rules of judicial institutions and police.

In other words, during the state of emergency, measures can be taken without going through the usual procedure, giving more power to the police commissioner. A state of emergency can ban access to vehicles or people if a specific zone is identified as a risk area, or prohibit people from staying in certain areas; it can set up a curfew, close down establishments serving the public, and impose strong constraints to protests.


Can the government only renew the state of emergency for a limited amount of time?
Nothing in the law limits the renewal of a state of emergency. But, firstly, there is a procedure you need to respect. The extension of the state of emergency can only be applied with a parliamentary vote. So it is essential for the government to propose legislation every time it needs to be renewed.

The current state of emergency had been extended by two and a half months, in anticipation of both the Euro Championships and the Tour De France. The notion of "emergency" implies a limited amount of time, but it can be extended indefinitely.

It's been nine months since declaring the first state of emergency. Why are we renewing it so often rather than just setting it for, say, a year?
Yesterday, when the president announced that the state of emergency would end on the 26th of July, he didn't expect the tragic events to happen in Nice. It's true that we apply rules step by step. At the same time, we're in a very unusual situation, so it's normal to play it by ear.

A lot of groups, like the Human Rights League of France were offended when the state of emergency was declared. In November and December, during the COP 21, the state of emergency has been redirected from its initial goal, which is fighting against terrorism.

Because, at the time, environmental activists were placed under house arrest?
Yes. We applied extreme constraints to these activists to avoid them speaking up in public places or creating a protest movement. It had nothing to do with the November attack. But the state of emergency was in place, and we used it against environmental activists. For that reason, it can be dangerous. It's important not to use this exceptional system in ways that stretch beyond its original purpose. I do wonder about the efficiency of these measures though. Their results aren't always clear.


Do you mean we're not collecting good data?
No, we have the figures. But I am sceptical. I can see that the number of people under administrative supervision has dropped. Also we haven't retrieved that many weapons during the raids. Maybe we don't know everything because they don't want to scare people, or they don't want to show the weaknesses of the system.

Extending the state of emergency requires human and financial resources. Is there a risk of burn-out from the people meant to protect us?
Totally. For this renewal, the state will use the operational reserve because the army and police have been called on a lot. A lot of overtime hasn't been paid, people can't get their days off…

Maybe we need more concrete measures, running parallel to the state of emergency. And we really need to accept some constraints, not just for two months. We have to remember that we can't do certain things like before.

It's important not to use this exceptional system in ways that stretch beyond its original purpose.

So, do we have to resign ourselves to living in a society with excessive security measures because of the terror threat?
If you go see a show, a football match or something else, there is a risk. There can be an attack any time and we have to accept it. It is by acknowledging this that we will remain safe.

Maybe we lost a sense of our reflexes and instincts being in a safe situation for so long. Afterwards, there's an attitude we can all adopt. We can't forget that the state of emergency is designed to help us. It is really important that the current situation makes it easier for people to access training courses like the PSC1, for example.

You think that courses should be set up alongside the state of emergency?
There are reactions and procedures that you need to know; like basic first aid, how to evacuate and secure a building, what to do if there is a terrorist attack or even a chemical attack… People living near a nuclear power station or a SEVESO building know some of the procedures because they regular training. If everyone knew these sorts of exercises, maybe we could avoid some of surprises and counterproductive reactions during an attack.

Thank you, Mrs Bovi Hosy.