By Bénédicte Jeannerod and Camille Blanc

Human Rights principles were proclaimed universal almost 70 years ago. They were articulated after a period of barbarity and contempt for human dignity caused by a lack of understanding of the critical importance of these rights. But we are seeing the most virulent attack on these principles in decades.

In France, speeches and proposals for emergency measures based on fear, intolerance, and stigmatization have been at the forefront of the presidential campaign. The disastrous logic behind these ideas has contaminated the political discussion. Even if candidates espousing these views do not win the election, which no one is in a position to predict conclusively, these ideas are settling into our political landscape.

We are concerned about the strength of the dikes protecting the rule of law and our democracy and of respect for the basic principles of human rights. Yes, we are afraid for the founding values of this country, which have been undermined and sometimes are even preempted by disturbing trends that we observe in Europe and in the world.

Expressions of xenophobia and hatred, which many leaders around the world have promoted, thrive on the feeling of insecurity in the face of terrorist attacks, unemployment, the crisis around welcoming refugees, and the perception of a dilution of national identity due to globalization. Demagogues play on the legitimate concerns of a section of the population to free themselves from the fundamental principles of the rule of law, which protect every human being. Instead they are promoting a double standard for protecting these rights, a contempt for justice, and a rejection of institutions that provide checks and balances on their power.

Hammered like a mantra and ignoring the facts, this rhetoric unfortunately seems to find a loud echo in a part of French society.

In the name of fighting terrorism, an elementary truth has been forgotten: that human rights were not invented by dreamers of beautiful and great principles. They are instead an essential condition to allow each and every one of us to live in safety, protected from arbitrary decisions to restrict our rights. They were acquired through social struggles and revolutions, and learned from the experience of previous generations. To be safe, we do not need fewer rights; instead, we must fight to ensure that all rights are effective for everyone.

In the face of a world that is disoriented and upset, wouldn’t the worst option be to give in to fear? To renounce the essential principles that guide us and let them be trampled? Should we not, on the contrary, reject without concession xenophobia and discrimination and preserve the understanding that the capacity for empathy defines our humanity? Should we not defend a strong and independent justice, and fiercely free and meticulous media in the search for the facts?

The situation is serious, but we refuse to see it as fatal. It is up to all of us working together to mobilize for the upcoming election and beyond, to show how much these principles matter to us and that they cannot be dissolved based on the fears of the moment.

Whichever candidate wins, we will be there to constantly remind the future President of the Republic of the principles for which they are the guardian and whose effective implementation they will have to ensure. These "human rights" are, above all, our own, so let us rise to demand them, defend them, protect them!

Bénédicte Jeannerod is France director at Human Rights Watch and Camille Blanc is president of Amnesty International France.

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