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French leader Macron proposes big expansion of his counterterrorism powers

French President Emmanuel Macron arrives for an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday, June 22, 2017. (Julien Warnand / Associated Press)
French President Emmanuel Macron arrives for an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday, June 22, 2017. (Julien Warnand / Associated Press)
By James Mcauley and Michael Birnbaum Washington Post

PARIS – President Emmanuel Macron’s government on Thursday proposed a significant expansion of authorities’ powers to fight terrorism, alarming civil liberties advocates even as defenders said the plans would help keep French citizens safe.

The proposal comes after a series of attempted terror strikes in Paris and Brussels in recent weeks and several bloody attacks in Britain claimed by Islamic State-inspired militants. Those have prompted European leaders to search urgently for new strategies to combat terrorism.

Before Macron’s election last month, the politician said he would seek new approaches to combat terrorism. But he also cast himself as a friend of the Muslim world, and said that France’s 132-year-long colonization of Algeria involved “crimes against humanity.” His far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen, sought to paint him as weak on Islamist violence.

The changes proposed Thursday seek to wind down a state of emergency that gave French security officials broad powers and was imposed after the November 2015 Paris attacks that claimed 130 lives. Some of those powers would be made permanent, including the ability to temporarily shutter places of worship that promote extremism and conduct searches with fewer restrictions. The draft also strips some oversight powers from judges and gives security officials more latitude to act without judicial review.

“I think we have achieved a good balance,” Interior Minister Girard Collomb told reporters after a meeting of the French cabinet during which he proposed the law. “The aim is to put an end to the state of emergency.”

Both Macron and his predecessor, Frangois Hollande, have sought to end the state of emergency, which has been extended several times since the Paris attacks. It is slated to expire July 15, although Macron has asked for it to be prolonged until November. Both Hollande and Macron fear the political blowback if they end the state of emergency only to face another terror strike, analysts say.

The threat against France was underlined on Monday, when a 31-year-old man rammed a car packed with explosives and guns into a police van on the famed Champs-Elysees in Paris. The man was killed in the attack, but no one else was injured.

Critics of the emergency powers say that they have been applied indiscriminately, not just to combat terrorism. Even some analysts who believe the expanded powers can be useful in disrupting terror plots say that the efficacy wears off as militants find new ways to evade detection.

“Emergency powers are effective because they are unusual,” said Frangois Heisbourg, an analyst with the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research. “If you make them usual, they cease to be effective.”

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