FRANCE: from health risks to democratic risks

Originally published in French on LDH website, 24 March 2020 – accessible here

Statement by Malik Salemkour, President of the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme

The Covid-19 pandemic has created a global situation never experienced before in history. Faced with its real dangers, its thousands of deaths and the risk of its propagation, the public authorities of all countries are taking drastic health protection measures with very strong restrictions on civil liberties. The effects are severe, with nearly a billion people around the world more or less confined in their homes, schools and non-essential businesses closed, the economy slowing down and stock markets collapsing.

France is badly affected. It is up to the State to take the necessary measures to protect the entire population, without exception and in all territories, to contain the spread of the disease and to treat the sick. It is positive that the government is providing significant financial resources and ensuring transparency on the evolution of the situation and its plans. The exemplary mobilisation of public service staff, particularly hospital and emergency staff, despite the serious difficulties they were experiencing before Covid-19, as well as that of employees and shopkeepers who ensure the continuity of activities necessary for everyday life, is to be commended.

Efforts still need to be made on behalf of the most vulnerable sections of the population or those placed under the responsibility of the State and local authorities, since shortcomings have been noted, as the Defender of Rights, the Controller General of Places of Deprivation of Liberty and the President of the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH) have pointed out together, following the alerts issued by associations. They particularly referred to the homeless or people living in slums, those currently in detention, particularly minors or the elderly, and psychiatric patients. A special framework must also be open to foreign nationals and asylum seekers because of administrative requirements that are untenable at the time.

In the face of an extraordinary crisis, specific temporary provisions and derogations from ordinary law may be envisaged in a targeted manner. However, they must not be disproportionate, go beyond their scope and unduly restrict fundamental freedoms, both collective and individual. However, the government intends to declare a “state of health emergency”, which can only cause concern, by granting itself extremely broad powers without effective checks and balances, with the possibility of decisions by ordinance and potentially long-lasting provisions that infringe acquired rights, particularly in the area of labour law.

Vigilance is therefore called for in the name of the protection of fundamental rights which cannot be durably weakened under the pretext of a “health reason” above all else, as has been the case in the past, just equally unjustifiably, in the name of the “raison d’Etat”.

LDH is in its role of watchdog of the French Republic by identifying and denouncing shortcomings, risks and excesses of all public authorities, both national and local, while some of them take advantage of the security overbid to increase a generalised and long-lasting surveillance of the population, as with the use of drones in some cities.

LDH, with all its sections and in connection with partners, will thus engage in a citizen’s observatory work on this “state of health emergency”, by encouraging the collection of testimonies of abusive controls and devices. Faced with Covid-19, the rule of law is more than ever an imperious obligation of our democratic functioning against arbitrariness.

While being aware of the need to implement the essential measures to curb the current epidemic, LDH intends to forcefully remind that this does not authorise the public authorities to infringe freedoms beyond what may be strictly indispensable to the fight against the epidemic.

(Translated with