French interior ministry plans to toughen up anti-terror legislation

·4-min read

France’s interior minister is to present a new law on Wednesday aimed at strengthening the 2017 anti-terrorism law. While the planned legislation has been in the pipeline for several weeks, the announcement comes shortly after last Friday’s terror attack on a police worker and ahead of elections where security looks set to be a prominent issue.

Key measures in the proposed bill include increased use of controversial computer algorithms to track down suspected terrorists, more home checks and extended surveillance of convicted terrorists on their release from prison.

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin outlined the proposed legislation in an interview with the Journal du Dimanche newspaper over the weekend saying it would “strengthen the monitoring of former prisoners and better identify individuals who become radicalised on their own”.

The use of computer algorithms to detect potential terror threats among internet users has up until now been experimental. Under the new proposals, domestic intelligence services (DGSI) would be able to obtain digital communication data from operators and keep it for research purposes for up to two months. It would also be easier for them to intercept satellite communications.

'Isolated individuals'

Darmanin justified the measure saying the state had to have access to the same technology the terrorists were using.

"We are now dealing with isolated individuals, increasingly younger and unknown to intelligence services, and often without any links to established Islamist groups," he said.

Laurent Nunez, head of the National Centre of Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism (CNRLT) highlighted “the importance of this technique in dealing with individuals who are increasingly isolated and whose only traces are digital”.

This was the case with last Friday’s fatal stabbing of a police worker inside a police station in Rambouillet; the assailant is believed to have been radicalised but was unknown to the police and intelligence services.

Similarly, the beheading of schoolteacher Samuel Paty in October was carried out by a young Chechen who was not on police files but was in touch with people in Syria through Instagram messaging.

Extended surveillance

The bill would also allow for more surveillance of inmates following their release.

According to the Ministry of the Interior, just under 500 people are currently behind bars for acts linked to terrorism. Around 100 were released in 2020 and around 60 so far this year. Some 110 convicted terrorists are due to be released from prison by the end of 2022.

Under the proposed legislation, former inmates who had served at least five years in prison, or three years for a repeat offence, would be subject to two years of administrative follow-ups rather than one year at present.

They would also face additional constraints upon release, including the need to “reside in a specific place” and “respect the health, social, educational or psychological care allowing reintegration and acquisition of the values of citizenship".

"In concrete terms, we will be able to track people convicted of terrorism up to two years after they have served their sentence,” Darmanin said. “We are finally improving the socio-psychiatric monitoring of potentially dangerous people.”

Sustaining the 'Silt' law

Another key point of the proposed law is to render measures laid out in the 2017 law on internal security and the fight against terrorism (Silt) more permanent. Adopted in the wake of the 2015 terror attacks, Silt aimed to bring part of the anti-terrorist state of emergency into common law.

But some measures were, and still are, deeply contested. Civil liberties advocates objected in particular to “home visits” of people suspected of links to terrorism, the laying down of security perimeters and closure of places of worship.

Those contested measures were due to expire on 31 July 2021.

Home visits were intensified in the days following Samuel Paty’s murder in October 2020, and the new legislation would allow for a broader interpretation of what constitutes a “serious threat”.

The bill would also allow for premises belonging to places of worship linked to acts of terrorism to be closed, rather than only the places of worship themselves as is currently the case.

Security concerns

The Islamist threat in France remains very strong, Darmanin insisted, referring to the “Islamist hydra” which president Emmanuel Macron evoked in October 2019 following a deadly knife attack at the headquarters of the Paris police in which four people died.

Since 2017, 14 attacks have been carried out on French soil, causing the death of 25 people while "36 potential attacks have been foiled", Darmanin said.

In addition, France also faced a “ultra-right, conspiratorial, survivalist” threat Darmanin added. Five planned terror attacks by such groups had been thwarted, three of which had targeted places of Muslim culture or worship.

A recent opinion poll in the Journal du dimanche showed that security and health were the two issues most preoccupying the French and would influence their voting patterns in next year’s presidential elections.