At a moment when American lawmakers are reconsidering the broad surveillance powers assumed by the government after Sept. 11, the lower house of the French Parliament took a long stride in the opposite direction.
The lower house of France is overwhelmingly approving a bill that could give the authorities their most intrusive domestic spying abilities ever, with almost no judicial oversight.
The bill, in the works since last year, now goes to the Senate, where it seems likely to pass, having been given new impetus in reaction to the terrorist attacks in and around Paris in January. Those attacks, which included the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery, left 17 people dead. As the authorities struggle to keep up with the hundreds of French citizens who travel to and from battlefields in Iraq and Syria to wage jihad, often lured over the Internet, the new steps would give the intelligence services the right to gather potentially unlimited electronic data.
“The last intelligence law was done in 1991, when there were neither cellphones nor Internet,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls said. The provisions, as currently outlined, would allow the intelligence services to tap cellphones, read emails and force Internet companies to comply with requests to allow 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 similar to that done by the United States’ National Security Agency.
Mr. Valls took the unusual step early last month of personally presenting the bill to the National Assembly and defending the measures, which are already facing opposition from some lawyers, Internet companies and human rights groups. Indeed, the lopsided vote by the lower house of Parliament contrasts with the fervent debate occurring elsewhere in Europe over how best to balance civil liberties and privacy rights against mounting security threats in an age of rising extremism and global interconnectivity.
The confluence of new technologies, virtual social networks and alienated Muslims has made it all the easier for militant groups like the Islamic State to recruit young Europeans for their cause of establishing a new caliphate in the Middle East — and, potentially, of striking European adversaries at home.
Last month, virtually by a fluke, the French authorities uncovered an apparent plot to attack at least one church near Paris by a gunman who appeared to have been encouraged solely over the Internet by handlers in Syria, without ever having gone there to enlist in jihad. The growth of global communication, however, has also encouraged governments to seek expansive and sometimes unchecked surveillance powers, as the leaks from the National Security Agency’s files by a former contractor, Edward J. Snowden, revealed in 2013.
“The means of surveillance for anticipating, detecting and prevention of attacks will be strictly limited,” he promised. But opponents, including one of France’s leading judges dealing with terrorism cases, Marc Trévidic, say that the law’s text contradicts the prime minister’s assurances.
“It is a state lie,” said Pierre-Olivier Sur, the head of the Paris bar association. “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,” he said, referring to the American legislation that, among other things, authorized extensive electronic surveillance.
Mr. Sur said he and others worried that the measure could be used to monitor any behavior the government viewed as potentially disruptive. The editor in chief of Charlie Hebdo, a victim of the kinds of attacks the measure is presumably meant to thwart, also criticized it. “I think that opportunistic laws are always bad laws,” the editor in chief, Gérard Biard, said in an interview.
“I understand the spirit of this law,” he said. “But I think we already have a lot of laws, and with these laws, if they’re used correctly, you can fight and you can fight terrorism. So I understand the government, you have to do something. The easiest thing to do is to invoke a law. But maybe it’s a mistake, because if this law is not correct, if this law is not fair, it’s not the right answer.”
The current text of the proposed law states that the intelligence services can propose surveillance to protect “national independence, the integrity of French territory and national defense” and to “prevent terrorism.” It can also be used to protect “major scientific, industrial and economic interests” and to “prevent attacks on the republican form of institutions,” as well as to fight organized crime.
French judges and lawyers also cite the need for oversight in their criticisms of the law. Mr. Trévidic, the terrorism judge, has gone on national television to describe the law as “dangerous” because it lacks any routine judicial review. The new law would create a 13-member National Commission to Control Intelligence Techniques, which would be made up of six magistrates from the Council of State and the Court of Appeals, three representatives of the National Assembly, three senators from the upper house of the French Parliament and a technical expert.
Any requests to begin surveillance would have to go through the commission. However, if the commission recommended against setting up the monitoring, it could be overridden by the prime minister. While in theory, the prime minister would act independently, it would probably be difficult for him or her to oppose the intelligence services, because they would most likely be supplying the information about possible terrorist or criminal targets.
The only judicial oversight is a provision that allows the commission to lodge a complaint with the Council of State, but lawyers are doubtful that it could be convened on a routine basis. The Council of State functions as a legal adviser to the executive branch of government and a supreme court for matters of administrative law. As for metadata, it would be electronically sorted, and only if the sites visited or the searches carried out suggested suspicious behavior as defined by the intelligence services would a human review of a person’s emails and Internet browsing occur.
Those protesting the legislation include more than 800 Internet companies, web hosts, software developers, e-commerce firms and other digital businesses that have mounted a broad campaign against the legislation under the slogan “Neither Pigeons Nor Spies.” A pigeon in French slang refers to someone who is a patsy.
“The requirement that the Internet companies use the black boxes is a requirement that Russia has as well,” said Cynthia Wong, a lawyer and senior Internet researcher at Human Rights Watch who has been following the legislation. She was referring to the devices the government plans to use to collect data from Internet companies.
“France is not Russia in terms of its human rights record, but if it does this, it legitimizes that behavior by Russia and other repressive states,” she said. The opposition also includes human rights groups and civil liberties supporters. These opponents want more protections in the legislation. As written, the legislation creates a “French Big Brother,” they say, referring to the George Orwell novel “1984.”