State of Emergency Protests: “My France of liberties, where are you?”

In the wake of the November 13th Terror attacks in Paris, a state of Emergency was declared. This state of emergency was extended for 3 months, and is set to expire of Feb 26th 2016. This weekend saw tensions flare, as 20,000 citizens took to the streets in 70 cities across France to protest these emergency measures. https://www.rt.com/news/330762-protest-emergency-citizenship-paris/

In doing so, they have highlighted some important considerations for emergency managers.

Declarations of Emergency

A state of emergency can be declared by any level of government, federal, provincial or municipal, and is a tool used to give authorities additional or altered powers to act in emergency situations. In Canada, the Emergencies Act, successor to the War Measures Act of 1988, defines ‘reasonable and justified’ temporary measures to help ensure the and security of Canadians during national emergencies. It also enables to government to limit the civil rights of citizens, though such measures are subject to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In addition to amending the powers and abilities of authorities, a state of emergency also alerts citizens to change their normal behavior and triggers the implementation of specialized emergency plans, procedures or actions. For example, in the unlikely case of a Nuclear meltdown in Ontario, a declaration of emergency would allow the implementation of emergency powers. Such powers could help enforce the evacuation of individuals and animals, regulate or prohibit movement within affected areas and otherwise facilitate the implementation of Provincial Nuclear Emergency Response Plan and related response.

Meanwhile, in France

The situation in France has an interesting history; the last time a National State of Emergency was called was November 2005, when the death of two teenagers, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, sparked countrywide riots. Before that, such orders had been limited to colonies; New Caledonia in 1984 and in 1955, 58 and 61, during the Algerian War.

While the current state of emergency has enabled the government to rapidly address security concerns by tightening border security, deploying hundreds of additional police and military personnel and searching homes without a warrant, the patience of the French citizenry with such invasive measures seems to be running out.

While security measures in the immediate aftermath of the November attacks was generally interpreted and necessary and even reassuring, the public has also been subject to a number of other controls meant to help keep them safe, and enable authorities to track the suspects, who remain at large. These include the cancellation of of school trips, bans to protests and public gatherings, placing people under house arrest without trial, and blocking websites.

“The state of emergency gives more power to police and administrative authorities, allowing house arrest and searches without warrants, along with other measures.”

While these tools are undoubtedly aiding the French authorities as they fight both the obvious terrorist threat, as well as many other current concerns to national security, civil rights activists are concerned that the powers have gone too far. Thousands took to the streets this weekend in 70 cities across France, in an effort to highlight their concern that the powers used to take swift and decisive action in the wake of the deadly November attacks, are no longer needed. Furthermore, they argue that the robust collection of existing surveillance and counter-terrorism legislation would be sufficient to enable authorities to carry out the investigation and ensure public safety, without the need for a continued state of emergency.

Whether the line has been crossed is a sensitive, and potentially volatile issue. While currently 79% of the population support the ongoing state of emergency, France is walking a difficult path. It will continue to do so in the face of cumulative serious national security threats, including the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. Indeed, many western nations have already experienced a taste of the complex issues which follow actual or perceived limits to civil liberty. Such topics are naturally liked to questions of national security, and therefore Emergency Management.

Lessons to be learned

The ability of nations to deal with such issues is not singularly informed by experience with acts of terror. Canada has already had a taste of the issues and sensitivity of the public in the face of surveillance laws, not to mention controversial implementation of the War Measures Act. Lessons can undoubtedly be taken from these and other experiences. Indeed, Canada could be faced with drastically more complex ethical, constitutional and legal dilemmas in the face of serious emergency situations in the future. This is especially likely if the rate of terrorist attacks continues to rise. In the meantime, emergency management policy makers, planners and responders should watch and learn from our allies with interest.

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