The State of Emergency Law (1955–2005): The History of a Law from Colonial Algeria to Contemporary France

By Sylvie Thénault

This paper explores the introduction and use of the state of emergency law between 1955 and 2005. This law bears the mark of the Algerian War, since it was created in 1955 and modified in 1960. Ultimately it resembles martial law except for the fact that the special measures it provides become the responsibility of civilian authorities rather than the army. The state of emergency law was introduced in Algeria in 1955, in France in 1958 and from 1961 to 1963, in France's Pacific island territory of New Caledonia in 1985 and then in France again in 2005. Hence, although it is presented in current debates as a colonial law, it was during the Gaullist period that the law experienced its longest and most loose application especially against the French forces fighting de Gaulle's Algerian policy, his republican regime, and his own rule. This law is as such doubly rooted in French history as a law conceived as a response to pro-independence revolutions, but also as a law of domestic political repression on the occasions when the Republic was forced to face its various “enemies,” whether these be the “outlaws” of the French revolution or the communists of the 20th century.


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