Ironically, just as Congress wrestles with the prickly propositions of the USA Patriot Act and attempts to water it down, French lawmakers are going in a different direction. This week the French Parliament, in an apparent knee-jerk reaction to the wave of recent terrorist attacks (including the infamous Charlie Hebdo massacre) overwhelmingly approved a bill that could give law enforcement broad new surveillance powers.
What is most troubling about this legislation, as the it now moves to the Senate, is that it will grant authorities the most intrusive, invasive powers ever, and without apparent judicial oversight. The legislation is an obvious attempt to qwell the public furor over the vast number of French citizens who are going to the Middle East to wage jihad, only to return and wreak havoc on innocent citizens.
The provisions, as currently outlined, would allow the intelligence services to tap cellphones, read emails and force Internet companies to comply with requests allowing the government to sift through virtually all of their subscribers’ communications. Among the types of surveillance that the intelligence services would be able to carry out is bulk collection and analysis of metadata.
Supporters of the bill point out that there hasn’t been any intelligence legislation passed in nearly 25 years, in fact predating the spread of cellphones and the popularity of the Internet. But still, the lopsided vote in favor of the law defies explanation when compared to the tenor of the French people, in particular, and the global consensus on surveillance in general.
The French authorities, who stumbled upon a plot recently to attack Paris churches, argue that uncovering such schemes would be more numerous (not unintended flukes) if they had greater ability to sift through citizens data. They insist that such surveillance will be “targeted” rather than broad, but it raises the question of how this will be determined and by who, if there is not judicial oversight. Referring the US legislation that, among other things, authorized extensive electronic surveillance, Pierre-Olivier Sur, head of the Paris bar association, observes that,
“It is a state lie. This project was presented to us as a way to protect France against terrorism, and if that were the case, I would back it. But it is being done to put in place a sort of Patriot Act concerning the activities of each and everyone.”
The proposed law has many detractors, not the least of whom is the editor in chief of the aforementioned Charlie Hebdo, Gérard Biard, who sharply criticized the seeming knee-jerk reaction the legislation appears to be to recent events,
“I think that opportunistic laws are always bad laws. I understand the spirit of this law. But I think that we already have a lot of laws, and with these laws, if they are used correctly you can fight terrorism.”
He goes on to comment that it’s easy to make a law, but harder to make a good fair law. This, he claims is not an example of one. Also protesting the bill are more than 800 Internet companies and other digital businesses who worry that the new surveillance laws will undermine public trust in them, and thus be harmful to the fragile French economy.
French judges and lawyers are also not on board with the legislation, as it lacks the requisite oversight. Marc Trévidic, a leading judge dealing with terrorism, has been particularly vocal in his criticism of the measure, going on national television to characterize it as “dangerous” for its lack of judicial review potential, and for leaning on the old-saw of national security to push it through Parliament. As it stands now, the only judicial monitoring is a provision which would permit complaints to be lodged with the Council of State, which functions as a legal adviser to the prime minister and a supreme court for matters of administrative law.
Human Rights Watch has also been observing the situation, and has weighed-in, likening some of the law’s requirements to what would be expected (and exists) in Russia – and that they even legitimize the Russian edict that Internet companies must kow-tow to the government. The broad anti-legislation campaign has even spawned a slogan, “Neither Pigeons Nor Spies” (a pigeon being slang for a patsy.)
Given the haste and scope of the legislation, one has to wonder whether it is a feeble attempt to placate the encroaching and growing shadow of the far-right nationalistic party of Marine Le Pen, and perhaps hijack the terrorism issue for a more centrist government seeking to stay in power.