Despite the heated debates around the implications of the French Intelligence Bill on civil liberties, a tentative agreement between right and left may guarantee its adoption. EURACTIV France reports.
France’s Intelligence Bill made its first parliamentary appearance on Monday 13 April, three months after the terrorist attacks in Paris, and in unusual circumstances. The bill’s safe passage through the legislature is all but guaranteed because the two main groups, the Socialist Party (PS) and the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) have both agreed to adopt it.
Some have hailed this as an expression of national unity in the face of terrorism.
Civil society organisations spoke out against this unlikely alliance, which “robs the nation of its parliamentary system”. Several dozen demonstrators denounced the “mass surveillance” proposed by the bill outside the National Assembly on Monday 13 April, before the debates began. If successful, the text would hugely increase the powers of the French intelligence services.
The major data hosts, including Ghandi and OVH, Europe’s biggest host, have also criticised the bill for adding prohibitive layers of extra cost that could force them to relocate.
Laurent Allard, the CEO of OVH, told AFP that the bill had provoked “a real societal debate, and not one about the protection of a corporation”.
Europe to the rescue
“All the countries of Europe have established a legal framework for their intelligence services, except us,” said Jean-Jacques Urvoas, the bill’s rapporteur.
“Our history is full of barely admissible operations, from Fouchet to the Rainbow Warrior to the bugging of the Canard Enchaîné,” the MP added, illustrating how a lack of legal structure can lead to systematic abuse. He added that “our services or no more special than they are secret, they are administrators”.
“Would we be less suspicious if we adopted Anglicism and called it ‘intelligence’?” the MP asked.
Terrorism in the spotlight
The rapporteur received the support of Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who was present to defend the bill. “I hope this text gains the broadest possible support, and that it is adopted as quickly as possible. It is about our national security and sovereignty,” the French head of government said. “We must be particularly attentive to one new phenomenon and the risk of its growth in France: the intelligence services have learned that seven individuals – I am talking of French citizens or residents – have died in suicide attacks in Syria or Iraq,” Manuel Valls told Members of Parliament.
“The youngest was not even 20 years old [and] six of them were recent converts,” Valls added. Around 100 of the 1550 French citizens currently engaged in jihadist activities have been killed.
The debate also gave a platform to many outspoken critics of the bill, including, perhaps surprisingly, the National Front (NF), which criticised it as a “freedom-destroyer”. For the NF, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen said she could not “explain to the French people that they would pay for their security with their freedom”.
The former Minister of Defence, Hervé Morin, questioned the bill’s objectives. “Its scope is much too broad, it spans the whole life of our entire nation,” the centrist MP said.
The debate will rumble on until parliament votes on the bill on 5 May.
Nathalie Griesbeck (UDI-Modem, France), ALDE co-coordinator of the LIBE committee, added: "This bill, going again through an accelerated procedure, represents a real danger to civil liberties! While I fully support the necessary objective of better managing and reforming intelligence activities in France and providing those services with tools and means to act, there are several measures in this bill that are worrying and seem to contravene the values and principles of the EU as enshrined in the Treaties and the European Charter of Fundamental Rights."
"Under the pretext of fighting terrorism, this law would normalise intrusive methods of gathering intelligence, provide intelligence services with direct access to the data of internet providers, and provide absolute power to the Prime Minister and the French security services without any judiciary control. The key principles of the rule of law and democracy are at stake, which is why we have addressed our concerns to the European Commission."
Sophie In' t Veld (D66, The Netherlands), vice-president of the ALDE Group and ALDE member of the LIBE committee, commented: "What this French bill shows is that, unfortunately, some Member States are spreading scare stories instead of providing any proof of the effectiveness of the more and more drastic measures they are taking. Putting forward new policies without a proper evaluation or without providing facts and figures on the costs of those policies does not contribute to increase citizens' security. "
"We urgently need an in-depth and well informed debate about the costs and impacts that this kind of measures can have when it comes to the protection of fundamental rights and the rule of law. What many of the measures that are being discussed these days bring is fake security instead of real security. We should not throw out the baby with the bathwater, and destroy our democratic rule of law and fundamental rights and freedoms in the name of defending the democratic rule of law and fundamental rights and freedoms ".
The French Intelligence Bill for the first time defines the scope of action of the security services. The bill mirrors legislation in other European countries. But human rights defenders are worried that its scope is too broad.
It focuses on "national independence, the integrity of the territory and national defence", and "the prevention of terrorism", but also the country’s "major foreign policy interests", as well as "the prevention of attacks on the republican institutions and organised crime".