France proposes increased surveillance to track down potential terrorists


PARIS – The French government, responding to several attacks in the past seven months, on Wednesday introduced a new counterterrorism bill that would allow intense algorithmic surveillance of telephone and internet communications and tighten restrictions on convicted terrorists leaving prison.

Prepared before the latest terrorist attack – the fatal stabbing five days ago of a police employee by a radicalized Tunisian immigrant – the bill has taken on greater urgency in a country where feelings of insecurity s is widespread.

“There have been nine consecutive attacks that we have not been able to detect by current means,” Gerald Darmanin, Minister of the Interior, told France Inter radio station. “We continue to be blind, monitoring normal phone lines that no one uses anymore.”

The bill, prepared by Mr Darmanin, came amid a political and social climate escalated by Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader, who applauded a letter published this month by 20 retired generals describing the France as being in a state of “disintegration” and warned of a possible coup in thinly veiled terms.

Published in a right-wing magazine, Valeurs Actuelles, the generals’ letter portrays a country ravaged by violence, swept away by hatred and plagued by subversive ideologies determined to unleash a racial war. “If nothing is done,” they said, “laxity will spread inexorably in society, causing in the end an explosion and the intervention of our comrades active in the perilous protection of the values ​​of our civilization.

In such a scenario, they warned, the dead “will be numbered in the thousands.”

The letter may have remained a marginal blast from a group of retired officers – it was later signed by more than 1,000 retired military personnel, according to the magazine – but Ms Le Pen propelled it to national notoriety by calling on the generals to join our movement and take part in the battle which begins.

Their analysis of the evils of French society was precisely hers, she said, and it was incumbent on all patriots to “stand up for the recovery and – let’s say it – the salvation of our country”.

Prime Minister Jean Castex on Wednesday condemned the letter from the generals as “contrary to all our republican principles” and its use by Ms. Le Pen as “totally unacceptable”.

Ms. Le Pen’s endorsement of the incendiary warning from retired generals also aroused the fury of Defense Minister Florence Parly.

“Ms. Le Pen’s remarks reflect a serious ignorance of the military which worries someone who wants to become commander-in-chief,” Ms Parly said on Twitter, alluding to the far-right leader’s candidacy for next year’s presidential election.

She continued: “The politicization of the armed forces suggested by Ms. Le Pen would weaken our soldiers and therefore France itself. The armed forces are not there to campaign but to defend France and protect the French.

The defense minister said the retired officers involved could be penalized and checks were underway to verify whether active duty military personnel were involved.

The letter, published on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of a failed coup d’état by generals opposed to granting independence from France to Algeria, amounted to a distillation of the conviction of the extreme right that France is torn apart by the kind of violence that killed police employee Stéphanie Monfeture last week. The position of his attacker to have stayed illegally in France for a decade before regularizing his status only fueled the anger of the right.

The retired generals alluded to the “suburban hordes” – a derogatory reference to predominantly Muslim immigrants gathered in aging high-rise apartment buildings around major French cities – which they said were pulling apart segments of the nation “to transform them. in territories subject to dogmas opposed to our Constitution. “

One of these dogmas, they clarified, was “Islamism” and another rampant “racism” – a word often used in France to denounce the importation from the United States of forms of identity politics that see the problems through. the prism of race.

Ms. Le Pen has embarked on what French commentators call a “trivialization” operation aimed at making her appear more mainstream. Its explosion clearly did not help this effort. She later attempted to pivot in a radio interview, saying all issues should be resolved peacefully.

Mr Darmanin’s bill, if approved by parliament, would pave the way for increased use of computer algorithms that enable automatic processing of phone data and web addresses to detect potential terrorist threats. This use, patchy and experimental until now, would be enshrined in law and the intelligence services would be able to keep the data for research purposes for up to two months.

Laurent Nuñez, national coordinator of intelligence and the fight against terrorism in France, told France Inter that this technique would apply to communications with people living in sensitive areas, such as Syria, where strongholds of jihadist terrorists remain. .

“An algorithm of tomorrow will not be able to detect the content of this communication,” said Nuñez, by way of example. But he would be able to “detect that an individual in France has come into contact with an individual in northwestern Syria”.

The intelligence services could then request permission to investigate the case further.

Mr Darmanin, responding to fears that civil liberties could be seriously violated, said several levels of permission would be required before listening to conversations of people detected as suspicious by algorithms.

Concerns about violations of civil liberties in the fight against terrorism have been increasing for some time. Arthur Messaud, lawyer for an association for the defense of personal rights and freedoms online, told France Info that the scope of the new measures was not clear. For example, would all instant messaging be monitored?

The bill would also allow the government to monitor terrorists who have served their prison sentences by forcing them to live in certain areas, restricting their movements and preventing them from going anywhere – such as a sports stadium – which presents “a particular risk of terrorism”.

Constant Meheut contribution to reports.

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