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French Parliament Debates Stripping Citizenship From Terrorists

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The deadly attacks in Paris last fall that left scores dead have led to something of a backlash against that country's Muslim citizens. Now, the French government is considering amending the country's constitution, adopting measures it says will help fight terrorism. That's got lawmakers divided and human rights organizations worried. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley prepared this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

ISSA: (Speaking French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: In a video interview provided by Amnesty International, Issa describes his life under house arrest - how he dresses his children for school before he has to check in with police three times a day. Issa says it's humiliating, and the tight restrictions have left him unable to work. Issa, whose last name is withheld, is one of 400 French citizens, mostly Muslims, currently being confined to their homes for often vague reasons. House confinement is one of the extraordinary police powers under the state of emergency in effect since last November's attacks. Another is the right to do searches wherever and whenever, without a court order. Marco Percolini a spokesperson for Amnesty International, says the state of emergency is leading to human rights violations in France.

MARCO PERCOLINI: Since November, there have been more than 3,000 house searches. In many cases, these house searches are basically carried out without any notification. So basically, police turn up at your place.

BEARDSLEY: Percolini says some people have been roughed up and their houses wrecked. And of all those searches, only four have uncovered evidence related to terror. Now the French government wants to make a state of emergency easier to invoke by enshrining it in the constitution. Historian Patrick Weil says France should use tough laws already on the books.

PATRICK WEIL: And we have to think of all circumstances before authorizing an amendment to the constitution that can lead to horrible consequence for all liberties.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CECILE DUFLOT: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: The French Parliament has been debating a second, even more controversial amendment to the constitution - one to strip convicted terrorists with dual citizenship of their French nationality. The measure provoked an outcry from legal scholars, academics and politicians from across the spectrum. Parliamentarian Cecile Duflot says France is abandoning its principles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CECILE DUFLOT: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Duflot reminded lawmakers that the last regime to revoke a nationality was Vichy, the wartime government that collaborated with Nazi Germany by stripping Jews of their French citizenship. While stirring up memories of Vichy, the measure started a firestorm, says Weil.

WEIL: It shocked a lot of people because it created a distinction in the constitution between French with dual or multiple citizenship and French with only one citizenship.

BEARDSLEY: The government was forced to rewrite the amendment so it no longer makes a distinction between citizens. But it doesn't mention the word terrorism, and refers to offenses against the nation. Weil says this could be interpreted many ways. He says the only way France can stand strong against the threat of terrorism is if the country is united.

WEIL: In the republic, what makes the unity is the attachment to the citizenship. And it's very dangerous to create a feeling of discrimination, of disaffiliation, in the mind of the citizen.

BEARDSLEY: Weil says France was united after the November 13 attacks. But the divisive debate on citizenship and the constitution is chipping away at that unity. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.