French President Francois Hollande chaired an emergency meeting Monday morning with key cabinet ministers and heads of police and security services to discuss how persons known to the country’s intelligence community were still able to coordinate violent raids in Paris. But just days before the attacks on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo left 12 dead and wounded another 11, a controversial new law, broadly expanding the French government’s surveillance powers, went into effect.
The law — passed in December 2013 over loud protests by the Green Party, leftists, privacy advocates and business interests — permits the French government to engage in real-time, bulk data collection without judicial oversight. This, coupled with a 2014 law criminalizing “individual terrorist enterprise,” has established the kind of wide-ranging authority that, when used by the U.S. National Security Agency, was once sharply condemned by Hollande.
This week’s attacks have already sparked calls from France’s far-right National Front to further restrict immigration and limit the country’s involvement in the European Union. The center-right UMP, party of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, has called for border controls and a state of emergency. And on Saturday, even Prime Minister Manuel Valls, a Socialist Party member, endorsed new legislative responses in a “war against terrorism.”
Yet, long before the 2013 surveillance bill was introduced, Hollande’s socialist administration was profiling French Muslims, and, unbeknownst to the public, carrying out a massive program of domestic surveillance.
Run out of the Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE) — the French CIA equivalent staffed by some 5,000 people, with an annual budget of 600 million Euros (more than $700 million) — the monitoring program has gathered troves of information through a network of satellites and 20 on-the-ground “listening stations” dispersed throughout France and its territories. Untold volumes have been swept in: data and metadata from phone calls, email and text messages, social media posts and faxes. (No matter that the country supported a 2013 U.N. resolution on the right to privacy in the digital age.)
Other post-9/11 laws and policies — not at all clandestine — have permitted incursions into French daily life, virtual and real. Statutes purporting to combat terrorism and illegal file-sharing have undermined privacy on the Web and, by extension, residents’ freedom of speech.
Following Wednesday morning’s attack, it became clear that French intelligence and law enforcement had been monitoring the shooters, Cherif and Said Kouachi. And, during the Friday standoffs, much was divulged about Amedy Coulibaly, the man who held 16 hostages at a Paris kosher supermarket. But earlier surveillance failed to prevent these incidents.
Many will want to know why. As analogies to 9/11 and the Patriot Act proliferate in the international media, Hollande’s reformist administration may be forced to choose, at least rhetorically, between national security and the rights to privacy and freedom of speech. The coming months will challenge France to answer with intelligence of a different kind.