French parliament approves sweeping counterterrorism law

Head of the Front National (FN) far-right party Marine Le Pen gives a press conference on the anti-terrorism bill on the day of its review by the parliament at the French national assembly in Paris, on Oct 3, 2017.
Head of the Front National (FN) far-right party Marine Le Pen gives a press conference on the anti-terrorism bill on the day of its review by the parliament at the French national assembly in Paris, on Oct 3, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (NYTIMES) - The French government on Tuesday (Oct 3) moved a significant step closer to making permanent some of the emergency measures put in place after the terrorist attacks of 2015, expanding the powers of the security forces to combat terrorism in ways that critics say may also curtail civil liberties.

The legislation, approved by a wide margin in the lower house of the French Parliament, codifies measures like search and seizure and house arrest without judicial review - steps once considered exceptional - and effectively institutionalises a trade-off between security and personal liberty.

The upper and lower houses of parliament still need to smooth over differences in their versions of the bill before a final vote this month, but most of the provisions are expected to stand in their current form.

The bill, President Emmanuel Macron's first major piece of security legislation, would allow the government to lift the state of emergency imposed nearly two years ago while still being able to reassure the public that the state will exert, if anything, even greater vigilance.

Critics say the measures included in the law lack sufficient judicial oversight, substituting instead the judgment of security forces whose suspicions could be based on faulty or thin intelligence.

They say the new legislation could exacerbate racial profiling by law enforcement, undercutting Macron's efforts to reach out to Muslims and minorities, both of whom could be disproportionately affected by the measures.

The interior minister, Gérard Collomb, justified the legislation as "a lasting response to a lasting threat."

It is expected to take effect Nov 1, when the emergency law is scheduled to end.

"We are still in a state of war, even if Daesh has suffered some military defeats," Collomb, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, said in an interview on the radio station France Inter on Tuesday.

The legislation codifies, among other things, the power to restrict the movement of people if they are suspected of threatening national security or harboring terrorist ideas. Before the state of emergency, such decisions would be made by a judge.

Similarly, the bill allows searches of private property at the request of a departmental prefect, a government official, rather than requiring review by a judge or prosecutor.

The legislation also expands the areas where the police can set up checkpoints at will.

It would allow them for up to 12 hours within a 14-mile (22.5km) perimeter around international airports, ports and train stations with international service.

Under another expanded power, local officials may restrict access, without court approval, to a public place or event if they deem them vulnerable to terrorists.

The restrictions could last as long as a month, with an option to renew.

A number of these provisions, or similar ones, came into force in November 2015 when President François Hollande put in place a state of emergency after terrorist attacks in and near Paris killed 130 people, including 90 at the Bataclan concert hall.

The state of emergency has been renewed periodically for two to six months.

Underlying the measure is a dilemma for politicians. Lifting the state of emergency has become politically fraught, but leaving it in place indefinitely would raise questions about France's commitment to democracy.

Whether codifying the emergency measures will prove palatable to critics is unclear.

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the United Nations special rapporteur on the protection of human rights while countering terrorism, said in a Sept 22 letter to the French government that the legislation offered only "vague definitions of terrorism and threats to national security" and exacerbated "concerns that the powers may be used in an arbitrary manner."

The government, which must respond to the letter within two months, has argued that the legislation includes safeguards.

Critics have also questioned whether the provisions will improve the security services' ability to detect attacks beforehand.

Of the 3,600 house searches carried out in the first seven months after the state of emergency went into effect, only six resulted in terrorism-related criminal proceedings, according to information in a parliamentary report and a report by Human Rights Watch.

Far more potent as an anti-terrorism measure was a law approved in 2015 that greatly expanded the surveillance and eavesdropping powers of the intelligence services, according to lawyers who study terrorism.

France is not alone in ramping up its counterterrorism laws after extremist attacks. Britain, Germany and the United States have all tightened their laws and expanded state powers relative to individual rights. However, France's laws are among the broadest and, unlike in the United States, where the extension of some counterterrorism measures has been checked by Congress, the expansion has been unabated.

"Since 1986 there has been a succession of laws whose goal is to fight organized crime and terrorism," said Christine Lazerges, a professor of penal law at La Sorbonne, noting that they had gradually "stripped terrorism suspects of their fundamental rights." "Legally speaking," she said, "we've armed ourselves to the teeth in the fight against terrorism."

The public broadly supports the state of emergency despite its many restrictions and its deprivation of rights for those suspected of having links to terrorism.

Many French have not suffered ill consequences from it, and they fear any retreat from the emergency measures will leave them more vulnerable.

"People don't feel their liberty is threatened," said Jérôme Fourquet, the chief pollster for IFOP, a major polling organization, which has surveyed people extensively about the trade-off between security and civil liberties. In those surveys, he said, many French have been supportive of the state of emergency and the new legislation.

"They say, 'Why should we lift it?'" he said.

Those surveyed have pointed to terrorist actions.

Just this past Sunday, a knife attack at the train station in Marseille killed two 20-year-old women; a couple days earlier, what appeared to be an explosive device was found near an apartment building in Paris.

"The French are confident that we are in a new era," Fourquet said, one that requires the state to have more powers to protect them, even if it means diminishing some civil rights.

But the approach worries even some conservatives, not least because the language in the new measure is seen as vague.

"A project like this one constitutes a threat to our rights because it replaces facts by suspicion," said Jacques Toubon, who now serves as the country's human rights watchdog, and served as justice minister in the government of Jacques Chirac, speaking on the radio network RTL last week.

He was referring to the legislation's vague language referring to terrorism and its use of such terms as "serious reasons" to suspect a terrorist connection, without providing specific detail as to what that means "It constitutes a risk for our future," he said.

"If these provisions, which touch our liberties, fall into the hands of an undemocratic government, think of our children."