French terrorism legislation in light of the Russian attack

On 22 March 2024, the Islamic State of Khorassan, linked to the former Syrian state, carried out a bombing at the Crocus City Hall concert venue in Moscow. The attack killed almost 150 people and injured 300[1]. In the following days, France announced its decision to raise the level of the emergency plan to “bombing urgency”, the highest level, only two months after it was first downgraded to level 2, “increased security – risk of attack”, since the 2015 attacks[2] in the Bataclan concert hall.

According to French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, “the Islamist terrorist threat is real, it is strong” and “it has never diminished”. It is therefore surprising that the level of urgency was lowered in January. It is also puzzling that it was raised again after the events in Moscow. 

Considering that the Islamic State of Khorassan has been getting stronger since the Taliban came to power in 2021, and that other geopolitical events could also have triggered a French response, such as the increase in tensions in Israel/Palestine or the problems in sub-Saharan Africa, why was the level of the antiterrorism plan raised specifically in the wake of the Moscow attacks? 

Rather than directly answering this question, which is a matter of internal politics, we will show how the similarities between the French Bataclan attack and the Moscow one have been used to justify an increase in security measures, increase that seems to be getting more common, regardless of human right violations.

To provide some historical and legal context, the three emergency levels are part of the Vigipirate plan[3] which was created in 1991 after the Gulf War and was used regularly until the London bombings of July 2005, where it remained at the “red” level until the colour code was abandoned in 2014.

The plan is to be used when the State has serious reasons to believe that an attack could take place in the near future. It applies to a wide range of sectors, including public gatherings, cyber security, transport, health, and even the food chain. While the lowest level implies a “permanent state of security” for all national actors[4], including citizens, the higher levels allow the closure of roads and the suspension of public transport. 

After the 2015 Bataclan attacks, this plan was used extensively, especially in conjunction with the “state of emergency”. Created during the Algerian war, it allows prefects to prohibit the movement of people or vehicles in certain places and to refuse entry to anyone who might pose a “threat to security and public order”. The government can dissolve associations and the minister of internal affairs can place anyone who might be considered a threat under house arrest. Following the 2016 attacks, there was an increase in the number of measures taken, with 2,000 house raids between 14 and 30 November 2016, and 150 house arrests in the first week and 300 by 1 December 2016[5].

Given this, it is surprising that of the 670 house searches that resulted in administrative proceedings, only 25 revealed acts that could be considered terrorist in nature. This situation, added to the long and extensive use of the Vigipirate plan, has raised concerns, especially at the international level, about the legality and the risk posed by these measures. 

For example, in 2017, Amnesty International[6] called for an end to the “state of emergency”, stating that it had “led to a series of human rights violations” and had produced “very few tangible results”. There has also been growing criticism in the international media following the reinforcement of the Vigipirate plan in 2020, with concerns about increased police violence and fears of corruption and the deployment of military forces in the country.    

While Gabriel Attal claimed in front of the National Assembly that “we have to prepare for every scenario, we have to exclude none. We must be everywhere, all the time”[7], we can still question the extensive use of counter-terrorism measures by French policymakers and their more or less direct link to a real and clear terrorist threat. 

Indeed, as Ní Aolain[8] writes, “it is generally accepted that certain terrorist acts and the actions of terrorist organisations can create the necessary and sufficient conditions to reach a threshold likely to trigger a state of emergency” (Ní Aolain, 2018). However, the lack of a clear definition of terrorism added to the legal practice of many states tends to standardise “the use of exceptional national security or emergency measures to combat terrorism” (Ní Aolain, 2018). This leads her to speak of “de facto” or “secret” emergency practices and situations in which “exceptional” measures are slowly institutionalised and thus become “normal”. 

Ní Aolain claims that “the notion of a permanent state of emergency seems to be better accepted by the public, thus enabling the authorities […] to adopt repressive measures” (Ní Aolain, 2018). Looking more closely at the case of France, the author explains that the “state of emergency” ended in November 2017, but the adoption of the “law to strengthen internal security and the fight against terrorism” a month earlier could be understood as a kind of normalisation of the state of exception.

While the European Convention on Human Rights claims that exceptional measures restricting liberty can be taken in “times of war and other dangers threatening the life of the nation”, we have to keep in mind Peoples’s observation that “states can be the biggest threat to the liberty, human rights, and lives of their citizens” (Peoples, 2010)[9]

Lindekilde[10] also speaks of “state radicalisation”, where a state slowly descends into increasingly repressive measures, which might make sense in the case of France. However, this scenario is not exclusive to France – as Peoples explains, since 9/11 “the ‘normal’ state of affairs in the US has become one where the ‘significant risk of terrorist attacks’ is permanent” (Peoples, 2010). This culture of fear, which can also be found in Europe, leads to a “climate of suspicion”, especially towards certain social groups (Mavelli, 2016). 

As a result, “security has become increasingly synonymous with surveillance and control, rather than maintaining human rights and the rule of law” (Peoples, 2010). Mavelli[11] therefore concludes that “the outcome has been not governing despite terrorism, but ‘governing through terrorism’” (Mavelli, 2016). For the author, the impossibility of reducing the risk of attack to zero has led politicians to implement a form of “precautionary risk management” based more on imagination than on scientific knowledge per se.

In conclusion, we can infer that France’s swift response to the Russian attacks in March 2024 is not just a normal geopolitical event. Rather, by bringing closer the Moscow bombing and the 2015 Bataclan attack, it uses the classical security repertoire of democratic states, with the calling for a state of emergency. However, democracies can´t maintain this state for long as it could create a popular rebellion. Therefore, French politicians seem to have constructed, in the past ten years, a new legal system with an increased attention to security issues, sometimes questioning the freedom and human rights of its population.






[6] Amnesty International, Dangerously Disproportionate: The Ever Expanding Security State in Europe, 2017.


[8]Ní Aolain, F., 2018, « L’exercice contemporain des pouvoirs d’urgence : réflexions sur la permanence, la non-permanence et les ordres juridiques administratifs », Cultures & Conflits, vol. 112, no. 4, pp. 15-34.

[9]Peoples, C., Vaughan-Williams, N., 2010, Critical Security Studies. An introduction, Routledge.

[10]Lindekilde, L., 2016, “Radicalization, de-radicalization, and counter-radicalization”, in Jackson, Routledge Handbook of Critical Terrorism Studies, Routledge.

[11]Mavelli, L., 2016, “The governmentality of terrorism: uncertainty, risk management, and surveillance”, in Jackson, Routledge Handbook of Critical Terrorism Studies, Routledge.