“Make Yourself at Home!”: the French State of Emergency and Home Searches in 2015-2017


In this text, Hassina Mechaï and Flora Hergon balance a legal and human reading of the thousands of traumatizing violent house-searches that occurred in Muslim homes after the state of emergency was declared in France after the November 13, 2015 attacks in Paris and Saint-Denis.

Bollards, security perimeters, video surveillance and other urban devices have been implemented in large cities for counterterrorist aims since the 2000s. Some other policies (refusal of the right to stay, the ban on leaving the country) have been impacting mobilities on the individual scale. In doing so, counterterrorism not only has some spatial effects on cities, borders and subjects; it also operates through the use of these different spaces. 

On November 13, 2015, French Republic President François Hollande declared the state of emergency to officially counter terrorism in France after the Paris attacks. This two-years exceptional political regime enabled French authorities to order thousands of house searches and house arrests within the first weeks after the attacks. State of emergency then, shifted to a new scale of control and coercion: moving into spaces of domesticity and intimacy.

State authorities and many citizens continue to consider the outstanding amount of non-conclusive house searches as “isolated police errors,” or a necessary but imperfect response to the terrorist attacks. However, the people we interviewed who had gone through a house search and/or a house arrest and who were not sued afterwards, speak of the traumatizing dimension of a search and/or arrest. They also insist on the fear that they experienced moments before and after the search. Their testimonies express the need to take into account the historical roots of the state of emergency as well as the significant long-lasting psychological, social, economic and political impacts of house arrests and searches, both on people’s subjectivities and on broader political resistance in France.

1955-2015: The Colonial Continuum of the State of Emergency ///

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Stills from the short movie Assia (2018) by Malika Zaïri, about the experience of a Muslim female teenager whose family home was searched by the police during the 2015-2017 French state of emergency. / Courtesy of Malika Zaïri.


The state of emergency is a specific legal regime, which can be decreed by the President of the French Republic when some events are considered to be a “serious breach of public order” and “when the nation is under immediate threat.” It was created in 1955 to expand government powers against growing anticolonial resistance and revolts in colonized Algeria. Since 1955, it has allowed administrative authorities (such as government members and departmental prefects) to order exceptional measures without any judge’s approval for a limited period (see this issue’s introduction by Léopold Lambert). 

Created in a context of anticolonial revolts, the last state of emergency was applied to officially finalize the French anti-terrorist system, even though it already constitutes one of the most repressive legislations in Europe. According to official government figures, 4,469 house searches and 754 house arrests were ordered between 2015 and 2017. Five attacks and 13 attempted attacks were thwarted during that period. However, the 3,594 house searches carried out in the first six months resulted in only 61 proceedings for acts related to terrorism, including 20 investigations for criminal association in relation to terrorism, and 41 proceedings for acts of apology for terrorism in December 2016. Similarly, only 41 persons remain under house arrest as of October 30, 2017. Despite this significant gap between police searches and legal proceedings, such exceptional measures allow the state to promote the image of an efficient and reactive state against terrorism, whilst upgrading its intelligence services. 

The majority of house searches and arrests targeted Muslim people, or people considered to be Muslim, who were suspected of religious “radicalization.” According to a French Parliament report in 2016, less than half of these house searches were related to individuals under ongoing surveillance by intelligence services. The other half then were ordered by prefectures and they targeted subjects who have been either deemed as (Muslim) “radicals” on the “counter-radicalization” platform, or people who were targeted for drugs or weapons ownership (sometimes with the appropriate permits). From 2014 onwards, and especially during the state of emergency, the “Stop-djihadisme” government platform has been providing citizens with a free phone number and an Internet form to report — in a spirit of (often racist) suspicion, denunciation or revenge — anyone considered as suspicious. 

Such a targeting of Muslim communities echoes the colonial construction of the interior enemy in French history (see Mathieu Rigouste’s work), from the demonization of the fellagha (Algerian fighter) to the figure of the lower-class French Muslim subject from North African descent in banlieues. In doing so, the massive control of Muslim households “Islamicized” the issue of terrorism, to the consequence of Muslims being targeted because of their religious activities.


The House Search: A Control on Muslim Spaces and Bodies ///

So concretely, what happened this day, they arrived at 6am, I was sleeping in my bed with my wife. I heard ‘Open the door, Open the door, Police!’ I did not understand what was happening, I said ‘Yes, yes, no problem I’m opening!’, but they were already trying to break the door with a battering ram, except they did not manage to break it! And then, it happened all too quickly. I did not have the time to realize what was happening. I ended up on the ground, I saw weapons pointed at me […] At the end I told them [the police], ‘There is some coke in the fridge, make yourself at home,’ […] but despite this, I was being handcuffed, hands behind my back, head against the ground.”(Jalel, 30 years old – all names have been changed)
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Stills from the short movie Assia (2018) by Malika Zaïri, about the experience of a Muslim female teenager whose family home was searched by the police during the 2015-2017 French state of emergency. / Courtesy of Malika Zaïri.

This description of a violent and unexpected police search during the night constitutes a representative example of many stories gathered about the state of emergency. Owning a Quran or other religious books, having religious clothes and/or frequenting a so-called “radical” mosque or a cultural association are part of the targeting criteria for the police. Such a search illustrates how state authorities categorize a “threat for public order and security,” which turns out to be really similar to the so-called signs of radicalization from the Ministry of the Interior, for instance: a long barb, the full veil, a hyper-ritualized religious practice, the removal of photos and any human representation from someone’s place, a sudden conversion. As stated by Nadia, whose home was searched: “It was written that the house was ‘non orientalized,’ that the ‘style is contemporary,’ that ‘there are three TVs,’ the furniture is detailed, ‘with coffee table and dining table’ Nadia explains that she replied to this report: “If we had had a Moroccan living room, was it a sign of radicalization?” In addition to highlighting the nonsense of the kind of gathered information by the police, this example illustrates the significance of domestic space as a reflection of a potentially dangerous behavior. This very intimacy is controlled through the way Muslim religious affiliation and practice overlap with and are projected as signs of “radicalization.” In doing so, police searches criminalize religious activities in the domestic space, despite French-asserted secular principles of the strict separation between private and public spheres. Jalel’s phrase “There is some coke in the fridge, makes yourself at home” summarizes the way in which home is now at the disposal of the police. 

The unanimous feelings among all the interviewees deal with trauma, long-lasting fear of being surveyed, and paranoia in their own home. Their bodies have kept the sensorial experience of sudden violence for several weeks or even years: some people describe a hyper-sensitivity to sound and/or a long-term difficulty to sleep. The police had ended up implementing an atmosphere of suspicion and self-discipline within the domestic spaces of the previously suspected people. Children and elderly people were specifically impacted by such measures. Indeed, some interviewed parents insist on the difficulty to explain to their children why the police intruded upon their homes. The impacted imaginaries of children — fear of the police, fear of being at home, distrust towards their parents — are necessary to take into account as the outcome of such measures. House searches do not therefore deal with an infringement of the domestic space only. They also differently impact bodies, emotions and subjectivities, depending on gender, class, race, religion, and age especially.

House Arrests : A Domestic Prison? ///

House arrests constitute another coercive domestic measure that originated from a 1955 colonial law (see Fabien Sacriste’s article in The Funambulist n°10), recently implemented a lot between 2015 and 2017. 

Ahmed, 33 years old, searched and under house arrest for four months, explains his reactions once the police told him his house arrest was over: “At the end of February you are told you’re free, yes, but only after they destroyed your life!” Being free refers here to the ability to leave one’s own home. His house arrest is experienced as an imprisonment in his own domestic space. The person under house arrest becomes their own police who reminds them to go clock in at the police station (and to potentially meet the same policemen and women who searched their house) three times a day.

Two years and a half after his house arrest in 2018, Ahmed also describes: “Now I try to claim for my rights. Because they ruined my house, I was deprived of my rights and I tell you, the worst prison, it’s the brain one. And actually, I am in a prison.” This sentence highlights the long-term psychological effects of such measures and in particular, the effect of having been suspected by the state, with no explanation, apology or reparation. 

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Stills from the short movie Assia (2018) by Malika Zaïri, about the experience of a Muslim female teenager whose family home was searched by the police during the 2015-2017 French state of emergency. / Courtesy of Malika Zaïri.

Socio-Spatial Marginalization ///

For the majority of the French population, the state of emergency refers to armed soldiers patrolling in front of some sensitive buildings or crowded places. But for many others, an entire community was impacted and questioned. As Jazia explains when she tells us her feelings after his brother was searched: “After the Bataclan attack, I was struck to read an article that showed that everyone [i.e. people living in the city center of Paris] knew someone who had been hit. The state of emergency was the same [in my community].”

Searches and house arrests lead to a long-term deterioration of some social and economic relations. Among the household, partners divorce, family members and friends fall out with each other because of failing trust or fear of association. One search therefore impacts a whole circle of relatives and social networks. The time and space of such measures are definitely extended. Ahmed describes his feeling of becoming a “damned outcast” in his neighborhood because of the visibility of the night search when it happened, in the dense social housing neighborhood where he lives. This kind of social marginalization also extends to the workplace. Lots of dismissals took place after searches, even though searches did not find anything conclusive to sentence the targeted person. Such dismissals or professional marginalization have a significant economic impact, all the more as such searches mainly targeted lower-class households. Moreover, being dismissed in such a way can make it difficult to find work, which impedes their ability to start over.

The fear of being surveilled or judged by relatives also leads to the modification of the behavior and the mobility of people who have been suspected before. Some of them explain having to avoid going to the mosque for several months, while others are afraid of bumping into local police on the streets. Ahmed, who lives in the banlieues (suburbs) of Paris, explains that he avoids “hanging out” in Paris, if that’s not “necessary,” because of the fear to be “at the wrong place, at the wrong time.” Although Ahmed has now been “free” for three years, his relationship to public spaces has inevitably changed. Others interviewees also explain how searches ended up changing how they behave in public spaces, through a change of clothing habits for instance. Jalel describes: “Concretely I’m afraid, I’m not who I am anymore, my behavior changed, I don’t wear a djellaba anymore, I go less often to the mosque, I’m not myself anymore, that’s it […] It’s sad but on a daily basis, I’m not myself anymore, I’m not myself anymore at all.” In this sentence, Jalel relates his selfhood as closely tied to his religious practices. The fear of being himself illustrates how the house search disturbed his deep subjectivity, and how it continues to discipline his body. Although a very few searches led to judicial processes, such intrusive practices nevertheless question the person’s conception of what is an acceptable or transgressive religious practice, both for the institution, for their relatives, and for themselves.

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Stills from the movie Soumaya (2019) by Waheed Khan and Ubaydah Abu-Usayd. / Courtesy of the directors.


An Unproven yet Unquestionable Guilt ///

Despite this socio-spatial marginalization, a significant solidarity network has been growing amongst Muslim communities. Lots of interviewed people did not initially know each other, but had met through non-governmental organizations that fight for Muslim rights. Such organizations provided Muslim people, who have been searched or under house arrest, with help to legally appeal the measures, to mediatize and denounce their experience and to collectively resist against structural and everyday Islamophobia.

Yet the ability to appeal depends on where the person lives, their networks and access to advocacy organizations, their understanding of the law and justice, and their financial means. These social factors explain why only 1.8% of all the people who experienced a house search were able to appeal to contest their search. In the case of house arrests, the judge can only decide whether or not to cancel the measure once it has been put in place. Whilst, in the case of house searches, this recourse is only symbolic. 

Individuals must prove that the intelligence services had made a mistake and that they do not constitute “a threat to public order and security.” However, in 2015, a law that strengthened the provisions of the state of emergency now allows the Minister of the Interior and prefects to decree a house arrest or to order a search of someone “for whom there are some serious reasons to consider that their behavior constitutes a threat for public safety and order.” The 1955 law used to allow these two measures only concerning subjects whose “activity proved to be dangerous to public safety and order.” The term activity has been substituted by the subjective and unclear term of dangerous behavior. 

This is a significant example of how colonial laws are adapted to antiterrorist policies that are always more and more speculative. How can one judge the dangerous nature of a behavior, in the absence of any material act? We shift from an activity to a behavior, from a proven activity to the expression “some serious reasons to think.” Additionally, it is also complicated to prove someone’s innocence when the motives of the search or house arrest relates to a religious practice. The presumption of innocence before proven guilty and a fair trial are thus called into question. Such a process can lead to feelings of disillusionment for those who make an appeal, especially if they had thought French law would prove their innocence. 

Proving Innocence: a Paradoxical Challenge ///

The difficulty of proving one’s innocence (during hearings or regarding relatives) can also lead individuals to use arguments that are totally unrelated to any legal matter. This is what Rahim, a shopkeeper who was searched and then placed under house arrest, expressed: “Before the Constitutional Council, I wanted to prove my good faith, but I ended up saying such weird things as ‘I wear shorts,’ ‘I drive a motorcycle,’ ‘I listen to music.’ Yet the representative of the public prosecutor’s office accused me of practicing Taqîya.” This term Taqîya refers to the fact of concealing one’s allegiance to a heterodox religious doctrine traditionally aimed at protecting oneself from possible accusations of heresy in an intra-Islamic context. Yet, the principle of Taqîya has been widely used by French judges to prove intentions to commit a terrorist act from persons who do not have a visible religious behavior — they would therefore be purposely “concealing.” Taqîya, a religious concept, has thus been transposed to the French legal and secular field.

Such a hyperfocus on religious practices make people wonder whether these house arrests and measures deliberately targeted them, only and precisely because they were Muslims. For instance, Lofti explains, “The only thing I understand is that I am a pious Muslim. Does every pious Muslim who is involved in his community now become a suspect? That’s racism, then.” Such a claim illustrates an unflinching interpretation of what it means to have their house searched, as someone targeted on the basis of their faith. 

To counter the narratives of judges, police and even their own relatives, interviewees insist a lot on how they are normal or exemplary citizens: “I don’t have anything on my criminal record, I have never done any harm to someone, never in my life […] I am a very sociable person, I have never had any violence” (Jalel); “I have never stolen, I have never had any problem with justice, I always worked, I always paid my taxes, straight you know” (Soraya). Jalel, Soraya and others interviewees refer to some different social criteria to prove their moral exemplary as well as their economic integration. 

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Stills from the movie Soumaya (2019) by Waheed Khan and Ubaydah Abu-Usayd. / Courtesy of the directors.

Other testimonies also include discourses that aim to emphasize Western liberal values : “I am Muslim but I like going to the cinema, musique, reading” (Farid); “I am someone open. I listen to rap, funk, Mozart. I eat at McDonald’s, and I even started to smoke again” (Ahmed); “We say ‘Muslims, Muslims,’ but my favorite client [of her shop] is gay, Jew, Pied-noir [former French settler in Algeria], so you know..!” (Juliette) These different sentences illustrate the anticipation of being associated with the fact of being Muslim, and as opposed to “liberal” and secular values, as well as potentially perceived to be homophobic or anti-Semitic. The references to such criteria highlight the need to prove “normality,” which turns to refer to being assimilated into the French Republican system. 

To prove their innocence, people are led to insist on their status of victimhood. To do so, they refer to their French nationality, their respect of the law, and their compliance with Western values, such as citizenship, secularism, work, responsibility. All these criteria are actually part of the same discursive frame as the one that legitimized the searches. Thus, the state of emergency demands that targeted people keep proving a (sincere but always questioned) integration to French social and religious norms, as Muslims, descendants of immigrants from the former colonies and French citizens.

From Counterterrorism to General Policing ///

According to international observers such as the U.N. Rapporteur, Amnesty International, many national human rights organizations, as well as lawyers and judges unions, the French state of emergency has been ineffective in the fight against terrorism. Instead, it threatens the right to privacy and family life, freedom of worship, the right to work and the right to demonstrate. As described earlier, the use of state of emergency measures has not been aimed at counterterrorism only; it targeted and policed blameless Muslim households to maintain “effective” public order. During the first week after the declaration of the state of emergency, every public demonstration was also banned in the name of this exceptional measure, while Christmas markets kept gathering lots of people in small areas. To resist against such neutralization of political demonstrations, activists who had been organizing a demonstration to express their solidarity with refugees, maintained it despite the ban on November 21, 2015 in Paris. Although it led to several arrests, the demonstration enabled activists to express a visible opposition to the state of emergency. A smaller number of house arrests and searches also concerned activists of the so-called “radical protest movement,” who planned to demonstrate during the COP21 in November 2015. This exceptional measure has also been widely used to prevent activists from participating in the protest movement against the reform of the Labor code in 2016, against the demonstrations at the “zone to defend” (ZAD) in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, and against the dismantling of the “Calais jungle.” Every demonstration back then resisted against the dispossession of the means of militant action, which the state of emergency has gradually allowed. 

The Law of October 30, 2017 then introduced exceptional elements of the state of emergency into ordinary law. Searches officially became “home visits,” and house arrests are now called “individual measures of administrative control and surveillance” (MICAS). A discursive change is observable and minimizes both the immobilizing and spatial character of a “house arrest” and the intrusive aspect of a search, which now refers to a simple “visit.” In addition, this law has extended prefect powers: they now can completely close and control certain spaces in cities, especially during demonstrations. It provides public authorities with a formidable coercive machine against any social movement or dissent. 

This “spirit of emergency” has become the paradigm for other laws that clearly restrict fundamental rights. For example, the current government passed a so-called “anti-black bloc” law in Spring 2019 during the Yellow Vests movement. This law aims to reinforce the repression of certain types of “behaviors” in public spaces (“illegal” organization of a demonstration, concealment of faces, carrying a “weapon,” which includes some protective gears). Similar rhetorics are used around the notion of “dangerosity” of one’s behavior in relation to the prevalence of preventive police measures. Here, counterterrorist and counter-insurrectional strategies are no doubt aligned with each other. Indeed, police violence that used to mainly target inhabitants in banlieues and quartiers populaires have now reached the city centers. From high school students to strikers and workers, any demonstrator who dares to struggle for justice is now likely to be controlled, arrested or beaten.

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Stills from the movie Soumaya (2019) by Waheed Khan and Ubaydah Abu-Usayd. / Courtesy of the directors.

The perpetuation of the state of emergency measures in ordinary law raises the question of a general mode of government, where the exception becomes the rule. If the state of emergency leads to a permanent state of exception that is expressed in a legal situation, then as the ultimate paradox, the State will be able to free itself from the law. According to Mathieu Rigouste, many times quoted in The Funambulist, the permanent state of emergency now gives rise to the opening up of a greater capacity for autonomy for military, police and intelligence institutions . 

Such reflection cannot avoid a final update on what is now happening regarding the management of the coronavirus crisis in France. Is “the state of sanitary emergency,” as it has just been decided by the French Government to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, a part of the spirit and rhetoric of the state of emergency? How else to understand Edouard Philippe’s expression, when he presented this state of sanitary emergency as based on the model of the “state of emergency of common law”? Explicit oxymoron and antiphrase. Here again, it is a question of giving excessive powers to the police and the administration. Initially, it is a question of setting standards for what, by definition, is unforeseen in its emergence and intensity and is limited in time. Then, it implies a potential “normalization” of these standards, which could be perpetuated by their introduction into ordinary law, and this is particularly true of the Labor Code, which would be completely called into question.

While the state of emergency leads to a control of domesticity of suspected individuals, this state of sanitary emergency has the means to go even further in the intimate sphere: it involves both increased coercion and control of bodies in public spaces (in particular in the banlieues), as well as the ability to literally probe the “hearts and kidneys” of beings (temperature, heart rate, sweating, nervousness), emotions and life flows, thanks to advanced technologies. Such a new exceptional regime therefore requires a necessary historicization to be able to critically apprehend it in such unexpected and uncanny moments. ■