PARIS â?? All over France, from Toulouse in the south to Paris and beyond, the police have been breaking down doors, conducting searches without warrants, aggressively questioning residents, hauling suspects to police stations and putting others under house arrest.
The extraordinary steps are now perfectly legal under the state of emergency decreed by the government after the attacks on Nov. 13 in Paris that left 130 dead â?? a rare kind of mobilization that will continue. The French Parliament last week voted to extend the emergency for another three months, which means more warrantless searches, more interrogations, more people placed under house arrest.
There have been 1,072 police searches already, 139 police interrogations, and 117 people have been placed in custody, the Ministry of the Interior said on Monday. Those included a weekend raid on a restaurant selling halal burgers and Tex-Mex food in the Paris suburbs, where officers found nothing suspicious, after breaking down the doors.
Many of those being swept up are among the hundreds of French who have already been flagged as potential security threats in the notorious S-files of the security services. The police are now freed to pick up and interrogate suspects virtually at will.
An indication of the lingering shock of the attacks â?? and the fear coursing through French society â?? is that few, publicly at least, are protesting these exceptional measures. But critics of the broad net now being cast by the security services say the results are meager given the looming threat to civil liberties.
Concern is rising, particularly in Muslim communities being singled out, that France now runs the risk of tipping steeply in favor of security at the expense of individual freedoms and of instigating tension with a Muslim population â?? the largest in Europe â?? that has already long felt aggrieved and second class.
â??These measures are going to place a spiderâ??s web over all of France,â? said DaniÃ¨le Lochak, an emeritus professor of law at the University of Paris. â??But in a discriminatory manner, because it will concern Muslims. Itâ??s out of control. What are they going to do with all these people who are under house arrest?â? The answer, so far, is not clear.
â??Youâ??ve got the feeling that the police can do whatever they want now,â? she said in a telephone interview on Monday. â??We are going to forego all of the protective rules.â?
â??This is what bothers me, this headlong rush forward by the government,â? she added. â??Youâ??ve got the impression that nothing else matters, it is all just collateral damage.â?
Even critics of the aggressive policing acknowledge that the government must be seen doing something to protect the shaky public.
At the same time, though, the critics worry that the drift toward a state where the police have the upper hand has discomfiting echoes in modern French history â?? the collaboration of the Vichy regime in World War II, for example â?? and they say authorities must be careful not to give in to panic.
â??Police searches and house arrests can now be ordered by the Interior Ministry and the prefectsâ? â?? local officials under the control of Paris â?? â??without judicial warrant,â? noted BÃ©nÃ©dicte Jeannerod of Human Rights Watch.
â??These extrajudicial searches have shot up since the attacks, they are being carried out in haste, and under pressure from public opinion and the political class,â? she said. That context, Ms. Jeannerod added, can only encourage human rights abuses and mistakes.
Long faces in the capital, more soldiers patrolling landmarks like the Louvre Museum and empty streets speak to the preoccupation with security. Politicians all over the country say their constituents are talking of little else but the slaughter a little over two weeks ago, according to the French media.
Amid the continued jitters, the French police said they found a suicide belt on Monday afternoon in a garbage bin in Montrouge, in Parisâ??s 18th Arrondissement, said a former French intelligence official close to the investigations.
The police say that it may have belonged to Salah Abdeslam, who had a role in the Paris attacks, because a cellphone of his had been matched to the location where the suicide belt was found. The former intelligence official also said that the Islamic State had claimed that the 18th Arrondissement was a target, but that an attack never materialized.
â??Weâ??re in a period of total tension,â? said Xavier Nogueras, a Paris lawyer who represents a handful of the 180 or so people placed under house arrest.
Mr. Noguerasâ??s clients are all Muslim, and are in the S-files that register those considered possible threats to the state. Participants in all the major terrorist attacks in France this year were in the S-files, too, including those in the attacks on Nov. 13.
But Mr. Nogueras says his clients, under the house-arrest procedure, are shouldering an intolerable burden that they do not deserve. Simple attendance at a mosque under surveillance can land you in the S-files, he noted. The result has been a catastrophe for his clients, he said.
Under the house-arrest rules, they must report to the local police station up to four times a day. â??That is totally excessive,â? said Mr. Nogueras. â??These measures threaten individual liberties. For most of them,â? he said, â??who have a normal work life, they canâ??t even work any longer.
â??They are taking it extremely badly. Because mostly they have nothing to reproach themselves for. They are living a Western lifestyle.â?
The Interior Ministry defended the exceptional measures in a news release on Friday. â??These operations are going to continue,â? the ministryâ??s statement said, noting â??the governmentâ??s total determination to fight without mercy against terrorism, and every threat to public order.â?
A spokeswoman said in a text message on Monday that about 200 weapons had been discovered during the searches along with 77 â??discoveries of narcotics.â? In the Paris region alone, 300 or so searches have been made, with more than 10,000 police officers deployed. In Lyon, France, a man with a rocket-launcher was arrested.
What can go wrong, in the wave of searches washing across France, was vividly illustrated on Monday in the newspaper Le Monde, which detailed the hapless police raid on the restaurant in the Paris suburbs. Photographs from a surveillance camera posted online show police in full body armor and helmets, stiffly posing among bemused customers.
â??When this takes place outside the judicial framework, there can be abuses,â? said Ms. Jeannerod of Human Rights Watch. â??You are putting it all in the hands of the interior minister â?? very dangerous,â? she said. â??This excess threatens public liberties. Daeshâ??s attacks are really a trap.â?