New French anti-terror law will only be partially effective

New French anti-terror law will only be partially effective

On 30 October, the French signed a new anti-terror law that grants enhanced power to law enforcement authorities, while limiting oversight from the judiciary branch.  Supporters of the bill claim that it will create necessary conditions to curb terrorism and extremism in France. However, civil rights defenders strongly oppose its measures, harshly criticizing its arbitrary aspects.

Important elements of the state of emergency enforced by France as a result of the terror attacks occurred in November 2015 have been enshrined into law, making several of its measures permanent. The bill that was signed into law on 30 October allows the Ministry of Interior and police forces to carry out anti-terrorism operations without seeking prior permission from the judiciary, potentially resulting in a decrease in planned attacks.

Law enforcement authorities will be allowed to establish security zones around places of events that they consider to be vulnerable to attack. The law also grants the police the power to place suspects of extremist tendencies under the constraints of their town or city’s boundaries for up to one year. Furthermore, authorities will be able to close down places of worship for a period of six months in case of incitement to violence. Increased discretion will be given with regards to private property raids if given judicial permission and greater restrictions on free movement of persons if deemed as a threat to national security. Such limitations aim at deterring and preventing radicalization and deliberate attacks, while contradicting, to some extent, the principle of individual liberty.

Part of Macron’s broader strategy

The bill was adopted by a margin of 415 to 127 and was deemed necessary given France’s “state of war” against extremism and radicalization, as over 240 people were killed since 2015 in the country due to Islamic State-inspired attacks.

While few disagree on the need to curb IS-related ideology and violence in France, controversies have arisen with regards to effectiveness and necessity of this new law. However, according to government sources, measures taken as a result of the emergency status had prevented the execution of several attacks, hence the necessity of keeping the status intact.

In order to better appreciate the implications of the new law, it should be understood as part of a broader strategy adopted by President Macron to enhance the nation’s counter-terrorism efforts. In June, the French President created the National Centre for Counter-terrorism, with a view to strengthening coordination between the intelligence services to respond and prevent terror attacks.

The improvement and strengthening of national counter-terrorism measures are necessary in order to lower the risk of terror-related violence and uncertainty. Such enhanced power can be especially effective in identifying and preventing planned attacks. At least seven terror plots were foiled this year, while last April two suspects were arrested for intending to commit a violent act elections in Marseille.

Police and intelligence forces were able to effectively track the suspects’ activities and to conduct the property search that leads to their arrest, as multiple weapons and explosives were found in one of the suspects’ apartments. Nevertheless, it remains unclear whether such measures would be able to prevent attacks which do not involve a high degree of planning, such as the Nice attack, conducted by a single assailant and requiring a low level of preparation.

Overall, the most difficult task remains to balance prevention, swift response to existing threats, and protection of civil liberties, while limiting arbitrary police action to a minimum.

Will the new anti-terrorism law curb civil rights?

Human rights groups have been the harshest critics of the new law, arguing that it would result in the infringement of multiple civil liberties, such as the right to security, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion. One of the main concerns  is that enforcement authorities will not be required to provide much proof of radicalization. Religious venues can be closed down on the basis of preachers and devotees holding “radical ideas and theories”, rather than concrete evidence.

In addition, police forces will be able to carry out stop-and-search-operations, which could see Muslim minorities targeted on an arbitrary basis. This would risk having the unwanted effect of further alienation and radicalization.

Lastly, the bill will allow security services to access the travel data of airline passengers, and intelligence agencies to tap into phone and email communications in order to detect suspicious behaviour, raising the issue of data privacy.

The public reaction has not yet been strongly critical, given the series of Islamist-related attacks that have affected the country in recent years. Nevertheless, a recent poll showed that while 57 percent of the respondents claimed to be in favour of the law and 89 percent consider the measure to improve security, 62 percent also expected that it would undermine their freedoms.

Unlikely to prevent unsophisticated attacks

The consequences of this new anti-terrorism law on France’s security and stability will only be determined in the long-term. So far, judging from the existing measures’ effectiveness in preventing attacks, the most likely short-term impact will be the decline of complex terrorist attacks, at least with regards to their frequency. While the relatively wide margin of discretion given to the police will undoubtedly result in false alarms and the breach of civil rights in some cases, enhanced intelligence operations and swifter action by the police will result in the neutralization of suspects before attacks are perpetrated. The high profile of the law will also no doubt discourage terrorist planning in the short term, as cells seek to avoid activity that would result in detection. However, single-assailant unsophisticated attacks will remain extremely difficult to intercept, and with Islamic State being squeezed in Iraq and Syria, it will continue to seek to inflict damage in Europe.

Categories: Europe, Security

About Author

Benedetta Di Matteo

Benedetta obtained a LLM degree in International Laws from Maastricht University, specializing in Public International Law and International Relations. Benedetta worked as an open source analyst for Horizon Intelligence, a Brussels-based political risk firm, focusing on political and security trends in Latin America. She also completed a traineeship at the Council of Europe's Economic Crime and Cooperation Division. Benedetta focuses on international security issues, including transnational crimes.