Confronting authoritarianism

Since November 13, 2015, the French state has become authoritarian. Since November 13, 2015, the police rampaged through several houses without judicial oversight and without any justification. This happened not once, but thousands of times. Hundreds of people have been put under house arrest. Some for political reasons (environment activists), most for religious ones (Muslims)[1]. None were linked to terrorism[2]. The government officially suspended human rights[3]. Websites have been censored by the police. Politicians who dissented have been told by the government that their political career was over[4]. And the government prepares the legal basis for a perpetual state of emergency[5].

Authoritarianism is a regime where the executive power does away with the system of checks and balances of a democracy, where fundamental freedoms are constrained and where the government argues that such actions are required by a superior interest[6]. France today fills the criteria.

Authoritarianism is here to stay

The event that triggered the authoritarian shift in France was not extraordinary. The attacks of November 13 have been compared to September 11, 2001, in the United States. This is a false analogy. September 11 was a much bigger event. It destroyed a landmark, caused death on a war-like scale and was the largest terrorist event on American soil, by very far. None of this is true for November 13. The attack was of an order of magnitude similar to events in London in 2004, Madrid in 2005 or Oslo in 2011. France has been hit by terrorism on a similar scale several times before. And the attacks were prepared in plain sight[7]. The only reaction the government should have had was to fire the minister of the Interior and the head of the intelligence service.

The state of emergency that followed cannot be justified by what happened on November 13[8]. Not once in post-war history has a country strayed so far away from democracy after a terrorist attack. The closest historical precedent to the November 13 events is the German Autumn of 1977. Then, terrorists sponsored by a foreign government attacked a series of symbolic and “civilian” targets. Despite serious violations of fundamental rights, the government of the Federal Republic never declared a state of emergency and institutions went back to normal when the terrorists were neutralized[9]. For these reasons, it cannot be argued that the suspension of democracy since November 13 is an instance of “crisis government”, as was the case in 2005, when the French government used emergency powers for a few days to quash riots in the banlieues, or in 1955 or 1961, when it was fighting a war in Algeria.

Because the state of emergency was imposed without justification, it cannot be lifted easily. If it were lifted, it would imply that it was wrongly imposed and politicians responsible for the decision would lose face - and power. On the contrary, politicians have an incentive to take the strongest possible measures to show that they are fighting terrorism. The panic that seized Belgian officials between November 21 and 25 exemplifies the mechanisms at play. Because no one wanted to be seen as doing too little, the whole city of Brussels was closed for a full week[10]. Politicians calculate that they risk more from far-right elements accusing them of doing too little than from moderates accusing them of trampling fundamental freedoms.

Accepting authoritarianism

The biggest risk we run now is not to accept authoritarianism for what it is. The biggest risk we run is to accept the lies of the French government when it explains that house arrests are no threat to individual freedom. Or that the ban on demonstrations does no harm to freedom of association[11]. Or that the police always makes proportional use of force[12].

The French, especially civil servants, assume that, because a decision is legal, it is compatible with democracy. Legalism is not only compatible with authoritarianism, it is a prerequisite. By being able to follow the law, the bureaucracy can continue its work while persuading itself that the rule of law is maintained. After all, Chilean soldiers during the dictatorship did fill out forms after “disappearing” someone[13]. The French government’s claims that its actions are intrinsically democratic because they are authorized by law should be refuted in full.

To keep seeing France as a democracy is to endorse the French government’s slide into authoritarianism. Most governments across the world condoned the French government’s actions after the January 7 and November 13 attacks. They cannot backtrack without admitting a previous mistake. More importantly, they have or are in the process of enacting similar measures at home. Politicians across Europe have bended to the might of the extreme-right, from Germany’s and Sweden’s closing their borders to refugees to Poland’s new government’s repeated attempts to do away with the rule of law. Because reactionary forces are so strong, a terrorist attack anywhere in Europe is likely to force the government of the affected country to react as least as strongly as France’s did on November 13, lest it appears impotent.

The two roots of modern authoritarianism

Authoritarianism is probably here to stay and is likely to spread, as the Belgian episode in late November showed. The disintegration of democracies takes its roots in the neoconservative idea that markets can replace institutions. This erroneous idea was used as a justification for politicians since the 1990’s to use their position for personal gain. After all, if an official harms the credibility of his or her institution, what’s the big deal? The market will ensure that society runs smoothly. Such thinking is certainly to blame for unleashing the corruption that paved the way for the Front National and other reactionary movements in Europe[14].

Macroeconomic factors are the other major reason I identify as the cause for this authoritarian episode. The economic downturn in Europe is due in great part to the aging of its population. The dependency ratio (the number of people each working individual has to support) started to increase in the late 1980’s and is now reaching levels where the standard of living must decline unless productivity makes up for the additional burden on the economy. unfortunately, productivity has been stagnant since 2007
[15]. Increasing inequalities make a bad situation much worse
[16]. Faced with a problem without solutions, politicians have to find scapegoats. Muslims or, where they cannot be found, Romas and Jews, play this role. Doing away with minority rights, European governments knowingly distance themselves from democracy. France and Hungary are front-runners, others will probably follow.

These two roots of authoritarianism, guilt-free corruption sustained by neoconservative ideas and decreasing standards of living that feed hate towards minorities, cannot be cut easily. We must accept that authoritarianism is likely to grow and last for years or decades.

We need help

For most people, life under a democratic regime feels exactly the same as life under an authoritarian one. Individuals do not realize they live under one or the other as they goes about their daily life. Only a minority of citizens can sense that they are affected by the change.

A novelty of Hollande’s authoritarianism is its appeal to intellectuals. If Hollande actually defeats the Front National in the coming months[17], this appeal will likely grow. Support from intellectuals around Europe would provide a solid legitimation to this renewed authoritarianism.

Apathy from the general population and support from intellectuals makes the position of people who care about freedom especially precarious. We need to organize for what could be a sustained period of limited freedom. The 2010’s are different from previous periods in that cultural goods are centrally stored on online platforms, where they can be easily censored. We need to make sure that important works remain available to all those interested in freedom, and not only to those with extraordinary computer skills, so that political education of the youth is not left exclusively to authoritarians.

And we need help. We need help from people who lived under the authoritarian regimes of Brazil in the 1970’s. We need help from Russians who confront their authoritarian government daily. We need help from Tunisians who organized under Ben Ali’s rule. We need help from the Poles who triggered the revolution of 1980.

Only with their help will we be able to devise a plan that might bring our freedoms, and democracy, back where they started in 1789.


  1. French NGO La Quadrature maintains a wiki of police activity since November 13. It contains all the links supporting the assertions above.
  2. As reported by Le Canard Enchaîné via journalist Fabrice Arfi. The original source, very unfortunately, does not publish online.
  3. The French government alerted the Council of Europe that it would not respect most of the Convention on Human Rights. Read La France informe le Secrétaire Général de sa décision de déroger à la Convention européenne des droits de l’homme en application de son article 15.
  4. Another information by Le Canard Enchaîné via Le Lab Europe 1.
  5. As reported by AFP. The latest probes by the French government is to leave the state of emergency step by step, adding measures from the state of emergency in normal law in the process.
  6. Most of the concepts relating to authoritarianism in this essay I took from Juan Linz’s Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes.
  7. About the unencrypted communication of the terrorists, read Signs Point to Unencrypted Communications Between Terror Suspects. About Abaaoud’s announcing the attacks in February, read Paris Massacre Mastermind Bragged About Infiltrating Europe in February Interview.
  8. The only event that might not have been possible without a state of emergency was the storming of the Saint-Denis hideout on November 17. In this case, the state of emergency should have been lifted thereafter.
  9. On this topic, read (in German) Der nicht erklärte Ausnahmezustand.
  10. Read (in French) Paniekvoetbal : le jour où la N-VA a fermé Bruxelles for the details of the political game that lead to the Brussels lock-down.
  11. Read this “fact check” by the French governmentt.
  12. This interview of the French Head of Public Liberties is mind-blowing. In it, he explains that all decisions by the police are justified. The interview took place 2 days after the police put over 20 environmentalists under house arrest and after over 1000 house searches led to precisely zero terrorism cases.
  13. This example is taken from Linz’s book. Do raise an issue if you have an original source.
  14. Of course, corruption is nothing new. What is new and dates from the late 1990’s is its acceptance as morally correct. That there was no outrage to Gerhard Schröder’s accepting a position at Gazprom after his tenure, that there was no outrage at Nicolas Sarkozy’s being financed by Qaddafi, that there was no outrage at Berlusconi’s style of politics and that there is no outrage when a new corruption case is uncovered shows how low liberal values have fallen.
  15. OECD has a good database on the topic.
  16. On the topic, Piketty’s Capital is obviously a great read.
  17. I see it as a possibility that Hollande will attempt to defeat the Front National before the 2017 general election outside the polls. If he does not, he faces the prospect of having a political party that hates him at the helm of a police apparatus that has every right to put the whole Socialist Party under house arrest without trial. Front National has less than 100,000 members. A de jure or de facto dissolution would probably not cause widespread outrage and relieve many in France. There are historical precedents. Romania’s government twice crushed the Iron Guard, a far-right movement that polled at 15%, in 1933 and 1938, for instance. I do not know of instances when the government tried to crush the main political party, but France is probably the only country where a party can arrive first at the polls and yet have no power at all.