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What is France's 'fichier S' watchlist – and does it work?

Benoit Tessier, REUTERS | A security officer directs shoppers at the Christmas market on Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris, Dec. 12, 2018.

The alleged shooter in Tuesday's Christmas market attack in Strasbourg was on a French watchlist known as “fichier S”, as were the perpetrators of several terrorist attacks over the past few years. How does the list work and is it falling short?

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What is Fichier S?

Fichier S is a sub-category of a much larger file of people on the radars of police, security and intelligence services. The “S” stands for “state security” and is the highest indication used by French authorities that a person might pose a threat to national security. Among the information included on the list are instructions on what course of action authorities should take if they bring a “fiché S” individual into custody.

The list is a surveillance tool, but being on the list doesn’t mean one has committed a crime. Designating an individual on the list enables French security and intelligence services to collect information about him or her, including wiretapping and placing a GPS tracker in his or her car, and to exchange information with their European counterparts. The designation lasts for a year, but can be renewed indefinitely.

The list was launched in 1969 as a national registry of fugitives. People on that list who were considered a threat to national security were given the “fiché S” designation.

Who is on the list?

About 26,000 people who are believed to pose a danger to France are currently categorised as “fiché S,” according to Reuters, and roughly 10,000 of those are believed to be religious extremists who have been radicalised, some in fundamentalist mosques, some online, some in prison and others abroad.

Being on the list doesn’t automatically mean that authorities think someone is a potential jihadist. Of the roughly 400,000 people who have been designated fiché S since 1969, many have been mobsters, prison escapees, anarchists, anti-nuclear campaigners or just plain hooligans.

People are not notified when they are placed on the list. “It’s only useful if those under surveillance are unaware of the fact,” Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said.

How does a person get on the list?

Going to fight for the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq or Syria will land someone on the list, as will visiting jihadist websites and meeting with radicals.

What happens to those on the list?

Authorities may surveil those on the list, but simply being on the list is not cause for arrest.

Is it effective?

Critics argue that the list does not do enough to prevent terror attacks. They note that, given the number of recent terror attacks that were carried out by people on the list, the system is obviously not effective.

“The fact of the matter is, there are more than 25,000 people on that list,” explained Rob Parsons, FRANCE 24’s chief foreign editor. “Around 9,700 of them are on it as potentially dangerous or potentially involved in terrorism or with the risk of becoming involved in potential terrorism. That’s still an awful lot of people for a service that is stretched anyway, which has to cover far more than just the threat of Islamic terrorism.”

'Awful lot' of people on the list

But French authorities counter that the system is effective and that by monitoring potential terrorists they are able to dismantle networks and thwart attacks.

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