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France has declared a state of emergency, but the law has an ugly history

François Hollande watches the France-Germany soccer match a few moments before the shootings began in Paris on Friday.
François Hollande watches the France-Germany soccer match a few moments before the shootings began in Paris on Friday.
(Matthias Hangst/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

On Friday night, as the Paris terror attacks were still unfolding, French President François Hollande stood before TV cameras to do something that no French leader had done since the early 1960s: He declared a nationwide state of emergency.

Many countries have provisions for states of emergency — periods of heightened security and often reduced restrictions of government action — but France's is particularly severe. It grants the state extraordinary powers to order warrantless searches of homes and businesses, shut down demonstrations, impose curfews, confiscate weapons, and put people under house arrest.

The law is rooted in a period of French history that was not as democratic as the France we think of today: the Algerian war of independence, fought in the 1950s and early '60s, a conflict that included tremendous turmoil within France and pitted the French government against its own military and against French settlers in Algeria.

Since then the law has been applied locally, most recently in 2005, and it's not yet clear whether this state of emergency portends sweeping changes. (The state of emergency can last up to 12 days or longer if the national assembly votes to extend it.) But to understand why Hollande's declaration of nationwide emergency is being taken as so significant, it helps to understand what the law actually does — and the ugly history behind it.

France's powers under the state of emergency

The law gives local governments the right to impose a curfew, though most have not. Public gatherings are banned in Paris until November 19, so that security forces won't be distracted from their main duties, according to Le Monde.

Border controls — which don't usually exist within the Schengen zone of the European Union — will be in effect for a month, including when 195 countries arrive in Paris for the climate talks that begin November 30.

The state of emergency also gives local police the power to search houses without a warrant. They can close theaters and gathering places and forbid protests. One provision allows for the state, if it issues an additional decree, to "control" the press — though it's not clear that this provision has ever been used, other than to seize Algerian newspapers in 1955, or precisely what it allows for.

The state of emergency law has its roots in Algeria's war of independence from France

For all of the French Empire's colonial endeavors around the globe, it always took a special view of Algeria. Unlike other French territorial possessions, Algeria was considered part of France rather than a colony; Algerians had French citizenship beginning in 1947.

So when Algerians rose up in October 1954 in a war of independence, France treated it as a civil war — one that brought oppressive measures from the French government, including a new law in 1955 allowing it to create a state of emergency. The conflict would last until 1962. Those seven bloody years account for nearly every instance in which France has declared a state of emergency.

The law, passed on May 3, 1955, was meant to help the government to crack down on Algerian revolutionaries: to control them not just militarily, but by restricting their movements, preventing them from gathering to plan or exchange ideas. It was applied in stages, first to the hub of revolutionary activity in Constantine, then to the eastern half of Algeria, and finally to all of Algeria. (This article in French from Sylvie Thénault, a historian and researcher at CREN, has an excellent overview of the law's beginnings and use.)

The law, written specifically for the war, was designed to give the government as much power as it could without declaring a state of siege — which would hand power over to the military for the duration of the crisis.

In political debates over whether to pass the law, the French Communist Party opposed it, arguing that it could also be used within France's European borders to stifle political dissent — that the government was taking advantage of the situation in Algeria to give itself the option of extraordinary powers to be used against the French people.

A few years into the war, French military and colonists, afraid that the French government would allow Algeria to become independent, carried out a coup d'état against French authorities in Algiers. They threatened to move on Paris unless their chief demand was met: that Charles de Gaulle, who led the French Resistance in World War II and briefly led the post-war provisional government, be installed as president.

A state of emergency was briefly declared, but it ended when, after the French-Algerian military took over the island of Corsica, de Gaulle was returned to power. He was given "extraordinary powers," including the ability to essentially rewrite the French constitution.

De Gaulle declared a state of emergency in 1961, when French military in Algeria attempted to stage another coup to prevent Algerian independence; it applied both in Algeria and in mainland France.

The law was used to impose a curfew for French Muslims in Paris, who defied it on October 17, 1961, in a peaceful demonstration. The French police attacked, killing hundreds — a massacre the French government did not acknowledge until 2012, and whose body count is still unknown.

A state of emergency has been declared only one other time since 1962, and then not nationally

The war ended in 1962 with Algeria declaring its independence, and after that the state of emergency has been used only once — and it was not declared for the entire nation.

In 2005, riots broke out in lower-income and immigrant-heavy suburbs of Paris and other French cities after two French teenagers of North African descent were killed fleeing the police.

The state of emergency, which lasted until February 2006, only applied to certain cities and departments, and it was used mostly to impose curfews. It was the first time the power was used outside the Algerian conflict.

But in a way, it was still related. The 2005 riots were seen as exposing deep divisions based on race and religion that remain in France, and bringing up questions of whether a staunchly secular country could successfully integrate its Muslim citizens, many of whom came from formerly French territory in North Africa. If, as has been reported, one of the attackers on Friday was a French citizen, those questions are likely to come to the forefront again.