This article originally appeared on VICE France
On the evening of the 13th of November, just hours after the terrorist attacks in Paris, French President François Hollande declared a state of emergency. Initially announced to last 12 days, the state of emergency was extended by the parliament for another three months, until the 26th of February. On the 22nd of January, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared to the BBC the state of emergency would be in place "until Daech is eradicated".
The state of emergency extends the rights the police have. For instance: under the state of emergency, officers can search your place at any time without a mandate from a judge, provided "there are serious reasons to believe the location is frequented by an individual whose behaviour represents a threat for the public security and order" (according to the 11th article of the state of emergency law).
That is exactly what happened to Bruno (whose name has been changed for this article), a 23-year-old studying to be a teacher. He lives with his parents in a small and remote village of the Haute-Savoie region, and he is one of the 3189 people whose houses have been searched under the state of emergency. We met up in a coffee shop in the center of the department's capital, Annecy, where he told me his story.
I've been a practicing Muslim for about two years. My parents were pretty open about everything that concerns religion and spirituality, so that's how I was brought up. When I was about 18, I started asking myself questions about the meaning of life, and realised I unknowingly had always been interested in Islam. My parents bought the Quran for me, and I decided I wanted to learn more about the literature of the religion. I discovered there were many interpretations of Islam, and Sufism in particular caught my interest – which is basically the opposite of Salafism. Sufism is pretty mystical. We don't only study the form of certain verses of the Quran, we study what different things could mean – we put them into context. It's a spiritual approach to Islam and that's what attracted me. So I chose this path and it feels right for me.
My friends and close family know I'm Muslim, but in my town nobody knows about it – it's not something I advertise. I don't have anything to hide but it's a private matter. A lot of people won't understand the choice and besides that, given the situation in France, you have to be careful with what you say and to whom you say it.
A few days before the police came to search my house, I was on the phone with a friend when I saw a police car pass my house slowly. I live in a village of 500 people, so that's pretty rare. I laughed and told my friend: "That's it, they're going to pay me a visit."
A week later, around 5.45 in the morning, I heard some heavy knocks on the door, and my dog started barking. It woke up my dad too, and when he looked out of the window he saw a dozen police officers and soldiers carrying weapons, circling the house. I heard someone shout "Police, open!", so I went downstairs and let them in. They immediately had me go back up to my room and asked me if I had any weapons, a flag of Islamic State or any other suspicious objects. I told them I hadn't, of course. They searched the entire house, from the attic to the basement. In my room, they took pictures of all my books about Islam.
It took them about an hour. They searched my computer, checked its search history and my hard drive. Looking back on it, the search was probably pretty mild. So much so, that I wonder whether the officers themselves were even convinced it was necessary. They asked me why I had been reading up about the situation in Syria. I told them I had because I wanted to understand what was going on, not because I wanted to join ISIS. They wanted to know where I had bought my books and where I had recently travelled. That was basically it: they didn't knock down my door, they weren't violent and they didn't yell at me.
Looking at my travel itinerary, you could maybe think I'm an Islamic extremist: I went to Turkey by myself, I went to Israel, to Palestine and to Morocco for an exchange programme. Every now and then I'll pick up my backpack and go on a trip – sometimes with friends, sometimes with my parents or my girlfriend and sometimes alone. That's it. But the fact that I went to potentially dangerous countries on my own didn't work in my favour, in this case.
Another thing that might have put me in this position was that last year, when I worked as a supervisor at a secondary school, together with some parents I mobilised a protest against the deportation of an Albanian family. The police told me that was when they first took notice of me, although the link with terrorism remains a mystery to me. The school where I work is next to a mosque, and I often go there between noon and 2PM. An Imam or a Muslim police officer might have reported my being there.
I don't think I did anything wrong, but the officers did manage to make me feel strangely guilty. And after the search, even my parents were suspicious of me and kept asking me who I was hanging out with. The search warrant stated that the police suspected me of being in touch with individuals involved in terrorist activities, but they never indicated who these people are. It made me think that I have to be more careful about what I'm doing but that's a dangerous thought: I shouldn't be more careful, I didn't do anything wrong.
I've always been very critical of extremism and my place was still searched. My family ended up telling the neighbours that there had been a robbery because we couldn't really brush that kind of police force off as nothing important. We told them we had seen some thieves in the neighbourhood and had called the police, who had come by with a bigger force than they usually would have – because of the state of emergency.
As they left, one of the officers told me: "We'll keep an eye on you." What does that mean? Is my phone being tapped? Are they checking what I do online? It's a weird feeling. With the extension of the state of emergency, there will be many more searches in the coming weeks – if not months. I understand why the situation in France is the way it is and I do believe the police only obey orders by casting a wider net. Yet still, it bothers me to be seen as a public threat by my own country.
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