French Soldiers Guard the Eiffel Tower (2018)- Source: Mighty.Germany, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Never let a good crisis go to waste: France’s securitisation of COVID-19 is a threat to civil liberties

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In anxiety-inducing times, when threats to our security are constantly delineated in political discourses, newspapers, social media and everyday conversations, there is a need to consider and evaluate the way our political decision-makers frame threats. Clearly French policy-makers have opted to construct COVID-19 not as a health crisis, but as a security issue.

Like most, the French government has detailed the threat COVID-19 poses to everyday life. Since March 2020, the danger COVID-19 poses has been framed in the same way as the 2015 terror threats. As the virus spread to France, the language of securitisation culminated in President Macron’s government establishing a state of emergency. In the same speech that he outlined French citizens’ responsibility to ensure a high standard of sanitation, Macron also declared a war against the invisible enemy.[1] Not only does the language of war perpetuate a climate of anxiety amongst citizens, but also leads one to question the tenability of establishing a state of emergency and essentially declaring war on an invisible enemy.

Does this not remind you of something? In November 2015, Paris was the target of a number of terrorist attacks. Former president Hollande triggered a state of emergency, which eventually ended in October 2017 after 2 years. Additionally, his government declared an indefinite War on Terror. The securitisation and elevation of the terrorist threat legitimised the activation of exceptional powers, which consequently, restricted people’s civil liberties and freedom.

Indeed, if we go back to a definition of the state of emergency, by definition those powers will inhibit rights and liberties, but those measures are supposed to be temporary due to the urgency of the situation. Nonetheless, the original 12-day application under the 1955 law was modified in 2015 to a 3-month state of emergency period. 3 months was extended a total of six times, resulting in a period of “exception” lasting 2 years. Afterwards, the French Parliament introduced some of these exceptions into ordinary law. One example is the closure of places of worship, infringing the freedom of conscience and religion. Another example: the use of electronic tags to place individuals under constant surveillance and infringing freedom of movement. To name only two.

The state of emergency measures in response to terrorism and Covid-19 are much the same: control of the borders, closing of public space and/or religious places, restriction on the freedom of movement, deployment of soldiers in the streets (e.g. Operation Sentinelle)[2] and Forces de l’Ordre[3] (i.e. Police and Gendarmerie enforcing COVID-19’s measures). All of which ushers in a state of surveillance in everyday life. This is another attempt to usher in a ‘new normal’ in French life, one that erodes civil liberties all whilst citizens are distracted and gripped by a public health crisis. 

There is a political interest in framing crises as threats to national security: COVID-19 creates the conditions for French citizens to sleepwalk towards a further infringement of their civil liberties. By framing COVID-19 as a security matter, the never-ending state of emergency allows more surveillance and control over citizens, legitimized because of an unprecedented imminence of a health crisis like COVID-19. Declaring a state of emergency has long been the ‘go-to’ political tool for French policymakers and remains a threat to freedoms and civil liberties. Thus, calling into question the durability of French principles of human rights and freedom, which are at the heart of the Constitution and are supposed to underwrite political life. With the announcement of a second national lockdown and a recent spate of terror attacks[4][5], what measures will be adopted, normalised, and codified that further infringe French citizens’ civil liberties?