Straining the Republic: France’s State of Emergency

Sunday, November 29, 2015
By Paul Martin

By Binoy Kampmark
Global Research
November 29, 2015

France is not alien to the notion of emergency powers. The French revolutionary state was very much an ongoing child of emergency, one safeguarded by the notorious and suppressing parent known as the Committee of Public Safety. In such swaddling clothes, it was inevitable that concepts of siege and crisis would be woven into the Republic’s legal political theory.

In time, French law came up with the concept of état du siège (state of siege), which only superficially shares ties with its Anglo-American cousin, martial law. Its motivating force is that of emergency. The current French legal system can resort to three sources of emergency powers. The French Constitution of 1958 and the statutory law of May 3, 1955 (Public Law 55-385) provide two of them.[1] The use of enabling laws characterised by delegations of vast power by parliament to the executive arm of government has also been another historical measure used.

The May 3, 1955 law was invoked by President François Hollande in declaring a nationwide emergency which came into effect the midnight of November 14, a state of affairs that promises to last for three months, with possible extension.[2] It is notable for covering the entire country, going beyond Jacques Chirac’s 2005 emergency measures to combat mass riots, which were more localised. The President may, in consultation with his Council of Ministers, declare a state of emergency in cases where “grave attacks on the public order” arise or where there is demonstrable “personal calamity”.

There was no preliminary constitutional review. Much like the Patriot Act passed in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 attacks on the US, combing scrutiny was the last thing on the minds of France’s political establishment. The French Parliament voted 336 to 0 to adopt the law, with 12 abstentions. The National Assembly’s figures acme in at 556 to 1, with 1 abstention.

The function a state of siege declaration is one of transfer from formal civilian authorities to those of a military nature. Parliament effectively divests itself of keeping order by granting it to security authorities, or what is otherwise termed those powers concerning the “maintenance of order”.[3] The state of emergency, however, sees the transfer taking place upon civilian based police authorities, which gives the somewhat deceptive impression that martial law has been entirely avoided.

As the historical record shows, this transfer of power to military or police authorities has taken different forms, notably in the Algerian context. The 1955 law came into effect to exert control over the press and insinuate the security establishment into the judicial system during the FLN insurgency.

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