Thursday

28th May 2020

Analysis

France to adopt sweeping intelligence bill

  • The intelligence bill allows secret services to monitor suspects' computers to detect potential terrorist behaviour (Photo: Bob Mical)

The French National assembly is on Tuesday (5 May) set to vote on an anti-terrorist law that would give sweeping powers to secret services to monitor suspected threats to public order and detect future terrorists.

The legislation should be definitively adopted after another vote in the Senate before summer.

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  • The bill was presented a few weeks after the January killings in Paris (Photo: Ben Ledbetter)

It is largely supported by the governing Socialist party as well as by the right-wing opposition.

It has been dubbed a ‘French Big Brother’ by opponents who argue it infringes on public and personal liberties.

Under the new law, intelligence services - under the prime minister’s authority - will be able to monitor any person suspected of being a threat to national security.

This includes the "major foreign policy interests" or "the major economic, industrial and scientific interests of France".

Services will be tasked with preventing terrorism and organised crime but also "the violation of the republican form of institutions and collective violence likely to violate national security".

To meet these aims, security services will be allowed to bug rooms, cars or objects as well as install so-called IMSI-catchers, a device used to intercept communications.

A new committee made up of magistrates, MPs and senators will be established to oversee the surveillance operations but it will deliver only non-binding recommendations before operations, except in emergency cases.

Meanwhile intelligence officers can oblige internet providers to install "black boxes" to monitor Internet traffic on a suspect’s computer.

The black boxes will use algorithms to determine if the suspect is likely to become a terrorist, according to his "signature behaviour". The algorithm formula will remain classified.

“Liberticide”

Prime minister Manuel Valls said on Monday (4 May) that the bill was "efficient" because it gives the "necessary means" to intelligence services.

It combines "the indispensable security the French people are asking for with our basic principles of freedom and democracy," he told reporters.

But several civil rights organisations, trade unions and left-wing parties say the legislation is "liberticide".

"France is authorising mass surveillance to prevent terrorism without judicial control or effective recourse for victims of surveillance," Geneviève Garrigos, the president of Amnesty International France, told reporters at a demonstration in Paris in Monday.

"In this bill there are specific measures for widespread spying, widespread collection of connection data and data changed by the all citizens on the Internet. Very broad aspects of social life are addressed by this bill," said Adrienne Charmet, from the Quadrature du Net, a group defending Internet users’ rights.

More than 124,000 people signed an online petition calling for the scrapping of the bill.

Grey zone

The powers introduced by the legislation are not new. They legalise the so-called "grey zone" of illegal yet admitted practices.

French authorities admit that unauthorised wire-tapping and the use of IMSI-catcher already exist in the secret services. They say the new law will mean it will now be under control.

The bill was in preparation long before the January terror attacks in Paris, but those events – shootings at the Charlie Hebdo magazine and in a kosher shop - changed public perception of the terrorist threat.

A few days after the attacks, Valls said that France was "at war with terrorism".

"France will protect all its citizen with determination and self-control. To an exceptional situation must respond exceptional measures," he added.

War on terror

Valls’ statement on being “at war with terrorism” is reminiscent of former US president George Bush’s declaration of a “war on terror” over a decade ago.

At the time, however, it was rejected by many in France as an over-simplistic concept associated with warmongering neo-conservatives.

But now France is faced with a destabilising phenomenon.

More than 1,500 French citizens have gone to fight for jihadists in Syria and Iraq, one of the highest rates in Europe.

Many of them are minors, converts and/or self-radicalised on the Internet and up to a quarter of them are young women or teenage girls.

This makes identifying and monitoring radicals and potential terrorists even more difficult.

Some of the jihadists return and commit terror attacks.

This was the case for one of the Kouachi brothers, who went to Yemen before killing 11 people at Charlie Hebdo.

It was also the case for Mehdi Nemmouche, who spent a year in Syria before killing four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in 2014, and Mohammed Merah, who went to Afghanistan and Pakistan and killed seven people including three Jewish children in Toulouse in 2012.

The surveillance legislation is to be challenged.

Faced with criticism, President Francois Hollande already announced he will wait for an opinion from the Constitutional Court before implementing the law.

A group of 60 MPs also said they would take the matter to court.

At the EU level, liberal MEPs have urged the European Commission to check if the law is in line with EU principle. On Monday two French conservatives MEPs made a similar appeal.

The Commission has so far refused to comment on the legislation.

Nils Muiznieks from the Council of Europe, which monitors human rights, was more outspoken.

The bill creates "a harmful climate where all individuals are considered as potential suspects," he said in March.

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