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France to strengthen spies' powers in new anti-terror law

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls (R) and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve present the latest intelligence bill earlier this month Reuters/Philippe Wojazer

The French government intends to keep information on people charged with acts of terrorism on file for 40 years. The proposal is a late addition to a bill on intelligence and terrorism that the parliament will start debating on Monday.

The government is to move an amendement to its own bill, drawn up in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, which gives sweeping new powers to intelligence agencies and gives more control over whether to start operations to the prime minister's office.

Click for RFI reports of the Charlie Hebdo killings

If passed, it will mean that the details of anyone charged with terror-related offences may be placed on file if an investigating judge so decides.

Convictions will be recorded even if they are subject to appeal, although they will be removed if the conviction is overturned.

The record will be kept on file for 40 years in the case of adults and 30 for minors and the period will start at the end of the prison sentence if the defendant is jailed and amnesty or rehabilitation will not lead to removal.

People placed on file will have to notify the authorities of changes of address and of plans to go abroad at least 15 days before departure.

Only a handful of MPs have raised concerns about the bill, which has been presented as a tool in the fight against "terrorism" but strengthens the intelligence services' powers concerning counter-espionage, economic spying and the protection of French diplomats.

But some of its proposals have drawn criticism from the government's own digital watchdog, a police trade union, human rights campaigners and professinal groups such as journalists, lawyers, doctors and magistrates.

Among its more controversial proposals are:

  • The use of IMSI-catchers, telephone eavesdropping devices that intercept calls by all telephones near a target phone, leading to fears that spies could "trawl" phone traffic;
  • Bringing intelligence-gathering in prisons under the aegis of national intelligence services;
  • Internet surveillance, in particular the useof an algorithm supposed to alert investigators of a "terrorist risk", which has led five data-base companies to threaten to move their operations out of France;
  • Lack of confidentiality guarantees for journalists, lawyers and doctors, which press campaigners Reporters Without Borders warns could be a threat to journalists' right to protect their sources and do necessary research.

Although Prime Minister Manuel Valls promised that the bill would not be a French Patriot Act, referring to controversial legislation passed in the US after the 9/11 attacks, the New York Times last month took the unusual step of warning that it could be just that.

"French lawmakers should not approve the bill unless judges are given a proper role in authorising government surveillance, vague definitions of what constitutes a terrorist threat are struck from the bill and freedom of the press is protected," it said.

"It's not the govenrment that is limiting public freedoms, it is these attacks," Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said in the bill's defence after the Islamic State armed group hacked French international broadcaster TV5Monde this week.