Fears of French-style Patriot Act in wake of Paris attacks

AFP | French Prime Minister Manuel Valls at the National Assembly on Wednesday

French lawmakers on Thursday debated sweeping new security powers demanded by President François Hollande in the wake of Friday’s terror attacks, amid growing concerns that France is introducing its own version of the controversial US Patriot Act.


The tough new security measures outlined by Hollande in an extraordinary meeting of parliament on Monday indicate that some of France's cherished freedoms could be another casualty of Friday's horrific attacks.

Hollande called for the state of emergency declared immediately after the attacks – a measure dating back to the Algerian war of the 1950s and early 1960s – to be extended to three months and for the French constitution to be changed making it easier for such extraordinary measures to be declared.

The French president also said it should be made easier to expel foreigners deemed a security threat, to revoke French nationality of dual citizens and to close down radical mosques.

The speech raised immediate concerns among legal experts and magistrates.

"When faced with a threat, we take decisions that make exceptional measures into permanent ones, which is never good for democracy," legal expert Serge Slama told AFP.

But several magistrates' federations said they had reservations about changing the constitution.

'A surveillance state'

Part of the problem for Hollande is that France has already strengthened its counter-terrorism laws, and has limited options for extending them further.

A raft of measures passed in June gave the state broad powers to snoop on citizens, and were seen at the time as a vital update to out-dated regulations dating back to pre-Internet days.

The June changes were overwhelmingly approved by lawmakers, even though the vote coincided with uproar across France over news that the United States had spied on Hollande and his predecessors, and disquiet over revelations about snooping from American former intelligence analyst-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Rights groups were up in arms, with Amnesty International saying June’s law took France "a step closer to a surveillance state".

Others slammed it as a "Patriot Act à la française". Some French commentators and analysts argued that – as occurred with the Patriot Act – the new measures will end up being used primarily for investigations that have nothing to do with terrorism.

Analysis by the Electronic Frontier Foundation showed that the US Patriot Act's "sneak-and-peek" powers, allowing investigators to conduct a search without informing the suspect, were requested 11,129 times in 2013, but only 51 (or 0.5 percent) were for terrorism cases.

The vast majority -- 84 percent -- were used against suspected drug dealers.


'Unimaginable in France'

Legal experts said it was unlikely France could go as far.

"We are still far from a Patriot Act,” Didier Maus, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Aix-Marseille in southern France, told AFP. “The Americans created a zone of non-law that is unimaginable in France.”

Maus argues that anything on that scale would be struck down by France's Constitutional Court or clash with European human rights law.

In any case, experts say the challenge of tackling terrorism lies not in the limits of the law, but the lack of human resources to sift through the mountains of intelligence being generated.

The French government believes at least 588 French fighters have joined jihadists in Syria and Iraq, while 247 have returned. More than 10,000 people have so-called "S-file" status marking them as potentially dangerous individuals.

The spying laws passed in June "allow for greater surveillance than in lots of France's European counterparts," Kit Nicholl, France security analyst for IHS Country Risk in London, told AFP.

"But it's clear the problem isn't identifying potential terrorists, it's having the resources for analysis and assessment."

Nicholl welcomed efforts to boost the budget and recruitment to intelligence services, but pointed out that it would take years for the benefits to trickle down.

"You don't become an intelligence officer overnight," he said.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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