PARIS: With emotions running high in France after the attacks in Paris, President Francois Hollande has called for sweeping new security powers, raising fears of a French-style Patriot Act.
The tough new security measures outlined by Hollande in an extraordinary meeting of parliament on Monday suggested some of France’s “liberte” would be another casualty of Friday’s horrific attacks, and could lead the country towards the sort of controversial snooping powers introduced by the US after the attacks of September 2001.
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 changes to the French constitution to make it easier for an emergency to be declared.
He also said it should be easier to expel foreigners deemed a security threat and to close down radical mosques.
The speech raised immediate concerns among legal experts and magistrates.
“When faced with a permanent threat, we take decisions that make exceptional measures into permanent ones, which is never good for democracy,” said legal expert Serge Slama.
He welcomed changes to the rules surrounding the state of emergency, which was introduced in a very different context, and includes powers such as control of the media.
But several magistrates’ federations said they had reservations about changing the constitution.
Part of the problem for Hollande is that France has already gone a long way towards toughening 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 as a vital update to ageing regulations dating back to pre-Internet days.
The law was overwhelmingly waved through by lawmakers even though it coincided with uproar over news that the United States had spied on Hollande and his predecessors, and disquiet over revelations about snooping from American intelligence analyst Edward Snowden.
Rights groups were up in arms, with Amnesty International saying the new law took France “a step closer to a surveillance state”.
Others slammed it as a “Patriot Act a la francaise”.
They fear 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 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.
Legal experts said it was unlikely France could go as far.
“We are still far from a Patriot Act. The Americans created a zone of non-law that is unimaginable in France,” said Didier Maus, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Aix-Marseille in southern France.
He said 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 government says 588 French fighters have joined militants in Syria and Iraq, while 247 have returned. More than 10,000 people have “S-file” status as potentially dangerous individuals, among them extremists.
The spying laws passed in June “allow for greater surveillance than in lots of France’s European counterparts,” said Kit Nicholl, France security analyst for IHS Country Risk in London.
“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 of intelligence services, but said it would take years for the benefits to trickle down.
“You don’t become an intelligence officer overnight,” he said.