Drones: What France wants for Christmas

The country hailed for its privacy laws is investing in drones to surveil its citizens

A Delta drone flying near Grenoble, France, in June.
Philippe Dexmazes/AFP/Getty Images

In France, privacy is among the most sacred "droits de l'homme," or rights of man. Often described as the toughest in the world, French privacy laws are deeply embedded into everyday life.

When Le Monde reported in October that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) had intercepted more than 70 million phone calls and text messages of French citizens, it created a major row.

The report labeled the NSA's activities as "espionage," leading French President Francois Hollande to express "extreme reprobation" toward his transatlantic ally. The U.S. ambassador was even summoned to the Foreign Ministry in a public display of indignation.

But the French state is itself one of the most persistent EU governments pushing for an ambitious military expansion, and with it expanded surveillance of its citizens — and drones.

Sometimes called an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, the drone is largely known as a military tool for delivering explosive payloads in targeted killings and signature strikes. But it is coveted by governments in Europe, too, for its all-seeing eye.

Although, according to polls, a majority of Europeans oppose drones, France and other countries are beefing up their fleets. In November, France joined Greece and Italy to form what French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has called a "drone club," to manufacture and develop military and surveillance drones from 2020 onward. Meanwhile, France and its neighbors are buying American drones, many of which will surveil the French from above.

With more drones hovering about, some are wondering to what degree France's privacy laws and other civil liberties can remain intact.

Drones for France

France updated its drone fleet this summer, ordering 12 MQ-9 Reapers from the U.S. It has sought for several years to replace its four run-down 1995 Harfangs made by an Israeli company. It originally planned to replace these drones with newer Israeli models. But the French Senate axed a deal to buy Heron TP UAVs because of the Israeli manufacturer’s difficulties “Europeanizing” the drones. It takes between two and four years to “Frenchify” drones, a process that modifies optical and thermal cameras, along with satellite communication. Until they are certified to EU standards, foreign-manufactured drones are not considered safe to fly in French skies. The American Reapers are also less than half the price of the Israeli drones.

The purchases coincide with a report by the Centre d'Etudes Strategiques Aerospatiales, made up of French army officials and analysts. Several of the report’s authors argued that the state should use drones in high-crime areas of France, a move very likely to cause discontent among its already marginalized citizens.

In the report, air force Lt. Col. David Secher called for the use of drones in France to surveil the banlieues (suburbs) on the periphery of Paris and to monitor migration flows. The head of the National Air Operations Center, Col. Bruno Mignot, proposed to use drones to monitor "illegal settlements of (the) criminal dens." Mignot compared French domestic drones to those monitoring the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Even while members of Hollande's own Socialist Party express outrage over surveillance interceptions by the NSA, they, too, are proposing ways to militarize French society and spy on their fellow citizens. During the first rounds of the mayoral campaign in Marseille in September, Socialist Counselor Eugene Caselli invoked drones for their use in stopping drug gangs and other sources of crime. "I ask the government to make Marseille a laboratory against crime, a laboratory with new technology. Now we have drones and we will use (them)," he wrote in the local newspaper La Provence.

This kind of monitoring would hardly be compatible with the protection of privacy.

Gregoire Chamayou

Even if France's drone fleet will initially be used for surveillance, the nation is likely to weaponize some of the 12 Reapers. But the process of weaponizing is not simple. It would entail the U.S. Congress's granting France access to the source codes, which give a glimpse into the heart of the drone system.

The first documented case of an armed drone carrying out a targeted killing was in February 2002, allegedly undertaken by the CIA in Afghanistan. In November of that year, another targeted drone attack killed an American citizen, among other allegedly Al-Qaeda-linked rebels in Yemen. In 2004, the U.S. began using drones in a string of aerial assassinations in Pakistan. These attacks increased to one drone strike every five days during President Barack Obama's first term.

As the killer drone moved into its second decade, Ben Emmerson, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on drone strikes and targeted killings, described the key legal frameworks that govern the use of lethal force. In a pair of October reports, Emmerson and his colleague Christof Heyns, the special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, called on civil society to expand its monitoring of drones. "States must be transparent about the development and use of armed drones, and publicly disclose the legal basis, targeting criteria, and any civilian casualties," Heyns stated. 

Of the 12 Reapers France bought from the U.S., two were fast-tracked for the end of 2013 for France's ongoing military operations in Mali.

The drone in French culture

Philosopher Gregoire Chamayou, author of the book "Theorie du Drone," believes France has yet to have a real debate on drones. "If police drones were to patrol from French skies, collecting … not only video feed, but also telephonic metadata and to conduct 'pattern-of-life analysis,' this would raise serious legal and political issues. This kind of monitoring would hardly be compatible with any standards regarding the protection of privacy," Chamayou said.  

Pierre Alonso, a journalist at Slate France, worries that drones could make surveillance rampant in France. "The most critical issue regarding drones in France is the civil use of army drones," Alonso said. "Like any surveillance technology, drones are used in high-profile events, such as the G-8 and high-level official visits. But the ongoing exponential use of drones follows the pattern of turning the extraordinary into the ordinary."

According to Le Monde, however, this sort of spying was already taking place, just on the ground. The newspaper reported in July about vast spying on French citizens — through the monitoring of phone calls, emails and Web use — not by the NSA but by the French intelligence agency, the DGSE.

Despite this, Damien Leloup, deputy editor-in-chief of Le Monde, said people have yet to feel threatened by drones because there hasn't been a scandal.

"The debate in France about … video surveillance has been rather vivid, but only started once a few towns decided to set up lots of (surveillance) cameras," Leloup said.

Weaponized drones have transformed the meaning of war, Chamayou said, where traditional combat is replaced by a violence that degenerates into slaughter, or "man hunting." Of the 12 Reapers France bought from the U.S., two were fast-tracked for the end of 2013 for France's ongoing military operations in Mali.

"Instead of taking a strong stance to vigorously condemn 'targeted killing' by the United States or by Israel,” Chamayou said, "or to advocate for an international prohibition on autonomous lethal robots, the French socialist government has chosen to rush to buy the newest tactical gadget. The debate has yet to come. The French public has been widely underinformed about the aerial assassination campaigns conducted by drones."

The debate on drones

Those who are debating the matter in France tend to be starkly for or against the use of drones. Jean-Baptiste Jeangene Vilmer, author of the report "Legality and Legitimacy of Military (Armed) Drones" in the French journal Politique Etrangere (Foreign Policy), argues that drones are not only state-empowering but a more "humane" way to fight wars.

Drones are more inclined to respect the principles of proportionality, in Vilmer's analysis, by causing no unnecessary suffering as a result of a "precision sensor." (An October report by Amnesty International, however, called this precision into question, blaming drones for excess civilian casualties.)

Many in France are torn on the matter. Maxime Sonigo, co-owner of Paris's Chez Habibi, a trendy wine bar, says his view on drones is divided. "The French will never like this kind of activity, especially its cost. But for me, my point of view will always be mixed between the good reasons for this kind of progress in surveillance and the bad effect of oppression always hovering above our heads."

For French engineering students, the drone industry and the technology jobs it generates offer a way to circumvent a floundering economy. More than 20 first- and second-year students in a group sit-down at IPSA, a private aeronautical engineering university, said they would work at one of the many drone technology companies upon graduating.

"It's not me who is pushing the button to kill someone or spy on the people," said Clement F., a second-year engineering student. "I'm just making the product. And if I don't, someone else will."

But Anthony Dworkin, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the EU has no interest in emulating the U.S. method of drone warfare. "There is a significant body of evidence that drone strikes have a damaging impact on local life and political opinion that can fuel anti-U.S. and anti-Western sentiment," he wrote in July. Dworkin cited the growing anti-drone campaign in Europe, mainly in Britain and Germany, where governments have encountered strong public and political opposition.

When the U.K. moved its drone base from Nevada to a Royal Air Force base in Lincolnshire, the move spurred a demonstration of several hundred people. In Germany, a campaign early this year called "No Combat Drones" sprang up in the wake of Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere's announcement that Germany would acquire armed drones for its military. Opposition parties pushed for Maiziere's resignation, alleging that he wasted public funds by canceling the botched 600 million euro program too late.

Dworkin argued that Europe should learn from America's mistakes: "To defuse public suspicion of drones in Europe, E.U. governments should reduce controversy provoked by U.S. actions and develop a clearer European line about when lethal strikes against individuals are permissible."

As organizations like the Professional Federation of Civil Drones continue to advocate on behalf of civil drone projects across the nation, such as an experiment by France's national train company to use them to police its tracks, the prospect that civil drones will be circling the skies of France is becoming more and more likely.

Despite this, the public seems to be unaware of the direction the state is heading in. As Slate France's Alonso put it, "Almost nobody cares about drones in France."

But the issue is far from settled. Among France's privacy watchdogs that campaign against the civil use of drones is the National Commission of Information and Liberties . The organization, vowing to "protect privacy and freedoms in the digital world," is using the recent spy allegations to garner attention in the media. Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin, the group's president, told Le Monde that the NSA case is a "godsend" because it educates France about the problem of surveillance and privacy, a problem that can accelerate mobilization.

Drones may still be science fiction for many in France. But their reality — and consequences — are embedded in its present and future.

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