The government established a state of health emergency in March 2020, at the start of the pandemic. From the start, the choice to implement a state of emergency was very revealing. It reveals a certain governmental mentality and a certain way of imagining the relations between the police and the population. In a context of real crisis, the French Republic has only been able to respond through an exceptional legal regime giving more powers to the police.
For me, this reflex in favor of the adoption of exceptional powers is part of contemporary French history. The framework for the state of emergency was created in 1955 as the Fourth Republic faced the start of the uprising of the Algerian people for independence from the French settlers. The government wanted to react to what we modestly called “the events” without resorting to “the state of siege”, an exceptional legal framework which dates back to the 19th century. In English, you would call it martial law.
To declare a state of siege would be to recognize that we were at war with a foreign power, to implicitly recognize that Algeria could be considered an independent nation. Instead, the French Republic invented the state of emergency, granting exceptional powers to the police and prefects. [delegates of the central state in each département] on the basis of suspicion of certain individuals, and not on the basis of acts actually committed.
The Republic has resorted to a state of emergency on several occasions, notably in 2005, when the suburb revolted following the death of two young men caught in a police chase. Then there was the state of emergency declared on the night of the Bataclan attacks in November 2015.
Concretely, the state of health emergency allowed the police to search and demand the papers of any person in public space, without having to give a reason. From March 2020, we were in a completely new situation, when it was forbidden to leave our home except in certain circumstances stipulated by law. To justify this, you had to provide a form explaining why you were outside. This meant that anyone in the public space was potentially committing an offense.
Before, that was not possible. Unfortunately, however, there were situations in which the police could search people for a specific time period and geographic space – for example, allowing excessive raids on undocumented migrants.
These total police powers were not only unprecedented, but entirely arbitrary. The police did not have to justify why they decided to search one person and not another. For example, they did not have to specify why they arrested a young black man in the 18th arrondissement of Paris rather than an old white man in the 16th arrondissement.
From the start of the confinement, I think there was a choice to specifically target the working-class and ethnically diverse neighborhoods of cities like Paris. This corresponded to the logic according to which these districts would be less able to respect the rules of containment. In the governmental imagination of the French state, there is an implicit racial prejudice against certain populations.