Debate swirls as Paris embraces video surveillance

Text by: Julien PEYRON
7 min

A debate over surveillance cameras is raging in Paris, where police are in the process of establishing a widespread system of "video protection". Is it a necessary security measure or a needless infringement of civil liberties?


Until recently, surveillance cameras were limited to monitoring car traffic in Paris, but little by little they’re multiplying throughout the French capital, strategically placed to film the comings and goings of residents and tourists. The new system, born of an agreement between Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë and Prime Minister François Fillon, is expected to install more than 1,100 high-tech cameras in public places around Paris. There are currently only 300, most of them technologically outdated and used exclusively to capture footage of automobile traffic.

Long criticised by left-wing officials, the video surveillance system has nonetheless gained support in certain Socialist-run cities, such as Lyon or Toulouse. In Paris, Delanoë collaborated with the police to set up hundreds of cameras in the city’s various districts in order to “improve security for Parisians”, according to a statement.

‘I don’t want a camera to film me buying the newspaper’

The sudden “video protection” craze has divided Parisian political leaders of all stripes. Delanoë's allies in the Green Party voted against the system in 2009, calling it an infringement on civil liberties. Contacted by FRANCE 24, Paris councillor Sylvain Garel of the Green Party said he feared the French capital was on the brink of a dangerous new security crackdown. “We’re heading toward a ‘Big Brother’ world,” he said. “I don’t want a camera to film me when I’m out in the street buying the newsapaper.”

Garel noted that there was an important difference between these new surveillance cameras and those that monitor bus lanes in the city’s streets, for example. “Cameras in buses don’t identify individuals, they simply track license plate numbers,” he insisted. “That’s far from a violation of civil liberties.”

Socialists, on the other hand, have supported the move. Myriam el-Khomri, the mayor’s security advisor, told FRANCE 24 she had “no ideological qualms with the cameras”. “They don’t constitute in and of themselves a new security policy, but one mustn’t reject new technology,” she argued. She also pointed to the existence of an ethics committee in charge of verifying that the images recorded are used appropriately. For Sylvain Garel, the ethics committee amounts to “a useless cover-up”.

‘Cameras alone won’t resolve the crime problem’

Beyond partisan quarrels, there have been questions about the effectiveness of the expanded video surveillance system. Supporters and detractors of the new cameras have been citing studies to bolster their arguments. The latest such study, published by the Oslo-based Campbell Collaboration in 2008, concludes that video surveillance cameras have only a “modest impact” in fighting crime, but are relatively useful as tools in investigations.

“To be truthful, cameras alone will not resolve the crime problem,” el-Khomri said. “But they can be effective as a means of dissuasion.” She also emphasised that the mayor had ensured that the establishment of a beefed-up “video protection” network would not result in a reduced police form. “A camera filming without someone to watch the footage is useless,” she noted.

Green Party official Sylvain Garel thinks the Socialists’ support for the cameras is a desperate act of a party still “traumatised” by the defeat of its 2002 presidential candidate, Lionel Jospin, and “incapable of crafting an effective response to the right-wing’s security offensive”.

“If you figure that only one Parisian out of 10,000 plans on stealing an elderly lady’s handbag, is it worthwhile monitoring all Parisians on a permanent basis?” Garel wondered, adding that he is in favour of bringing back a force of police officers to patrol neighbourhoods. “The only solution to the problem is real crime prevention,” he said.

London: a (counter)-example for Paris?

When the video surveillance expansion was initially announced, Prime Minister François Fillon stressed “Paris’s lateness compared to other big European capitals”. The French capital’s security measures are indeed far less extensive than those in London, where the network of CCTV surveillance cameras is one of the most developed in the world, with a million devices monitoring the city’s residents every day. According to Peter Neyroud, a researcher at Cambridge University’s Institute of Criminology, the system suits the city just fine. “In London, most people don’t care about being filmed and observed, as long as the authorities don’t keep the footage for too long,” noted Neyroud, himself a former chief constable.

Neyroud said he does not understand why so many in Paris are opposed to the idea of the city following London’s example. “In France, you’re already filmed when you take the metro or when you buy groceries in your neighbourhood supermarket,” he pointed out. “Being filmed in the street is not a big deal.” In terms of the effectiveness of a widespread video surveillance system, Neyroud does not consider any studies that have been published on the question to be particularly credible – not even the one carried out in 2009 by London police, which concluded that in one year, only one crime was solved for every 1,000 cameras installed.

But Paris’s mayoral office insists that it does not want to emulate London, which Delanoe’s security advisor Myriam el-Khomri calls a “counter-example”. “There are far too many cameras, far too many images, too many to be looked at,” she assessed. Paris therefore aims to create its own model: a limited network of cameras, overseen by teams of police officers specifically trained for this new aspect of their job.


For the moment, only 200 new cameras have been approved in Paris. Certain police officers with a special accreditation have been given the task of watching the footage in rooms set up in each district’s police station.

“It’s the police force of the future,” Officer Christophe Sounac explained enthusiastically. “Before, we had to rely on the ears of our colleagues on the ground, via walkie talkie, but now we’ve got their eyes, too.” Sounac now sees his job as that of a “data inspector”. The room in which he views the footage, located in the police station of the city's 13th district, looks like an air traffic control tower. “The day these people are attacked, they’ll be happy we have this footage,” he said from his new work space.

Sounac’s superior, Serge Quilichini, also spoke of what he considers to be the advantages of the cameras, which give his officers “a head start on criminals”. The arrival of this “video-patrolling” system will see the classic patrol teams of five officers transformed into teams of four plus the officer watching the footage from the control centre. “We’ll no longer be in the dark.”

While one of his men inspected footage from the cameras monitoring the Pont d’Iéna, a bridge linking Paris’s wealthy 7th and 16th districts, Quilichini dismissed accusations that the expanded video surveillance amounted to a breach of civil liberties. “We’re not going to be wasting time watching a regular Indian tourist, we’ll be focusing on thugs,” he said. “Police officers have better things to do than watch over honest people in the street. We just want those people to be able to stroll along peacefully.”

Though he said that the “video protection” programme will not lead to cutting back on staff, he admitted that a more widespread installation of security cameras would indeed mean that fewer officers would be needed on the ground.

One such officer waited for Quilichini, his boss, to leave the room before offering: “The new system is a bit less human. With all these cameras, at some point we’ll no longer have the regular beat officers who know their neighbourhood and its inhabitants.”

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