PARIS — Are there pictures? Nowadays, in almost every criminal inquiry, this is the first thing judges and prosecutors ask. "We can't work without these tools," says Elisabeth Sellos-Cartel, video-protection officer in the Interior Ministry's security cooperation delegation.
"Big Brother is watching you" is no longer a concept of much concern, it seems, to authorities in France, where over 6,000 towns and cities — 15 times more than in 2006 — have decided to install surveillance cameras. And in nearly half of those cases, the state helped pay for it, according to the Interior Ministry.
Topping the list is the southern city of Nice, which has 2,145 cameras on public roads (plus 170 in tramway trains) for a population of 344,000. The country's other major cities — including Paris, Lyon, and Marseille — have their share of cameras too.
The turning point was the so-called "video protection plan" that then-President Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012) launched in 2008 together with an inter-ministerial fund to help finance camera installation. France's mayors were sold.
Cameras are there to prevent crime rather than crack down on it.
Since then, there's been a subtle change in terminology as well: from video-surveillance to video-protection. The idea, explains Aloïs Ramel, a lawyer at Seban & Associates, "is that the cameras are there to prevent crime rather than crack down on it."
Their use was also extended to monitoring traffic violations. And in the wake of terrorist attacks and other public disturbances, there's a growing overall preference towards the cameras, according to Juan Companie, head of security with the Association of French Mayors.
Backers tend to all use similar arguments, saying cameras help combat common crimes such as drug trafficking, muggings and pick-pocketing by dissuading would-be criminals. Video recordings also accelerate police processing time and optimize their response. In short, they help solve cases.
As such, support for their use transcends political divisions. In Firminy (17,000 inhabitants), Mayor Marc Petit, a leftist who was initially reluctant to install cameras, changed his tune after troublemakers from the rough suburbs of Lyon sparked an outbreak of violence in the summer of 2009. Other communities in the area followed Petit's lead, including places led by members of the Communist Party.
"The cameras don't solve everything," he says. "But they're needed, especially after Nicolas Sarkozy reduced the size of the national police force. Not investing in them would play right into the hands of the far-right National Front."
Still, there are limits in France on how far authorities are willing to venture along the surveillance path. "The law prohibits the storing of data on people's faces or license plates," says Axel Garcia of Bosch, the world's leading manufacturer of electronic security devices.
In other words, the country doesn't allow the use of facial recognition technology, which is now commonplace in China and is also making inroads in Great Britain and the United States. In Orlando, Florida, following the Pulse nightclub massacre in 2016 — the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9-11 — Amazon signed a deal with local police to install its Rekognition program in a third of the city's surveillance cameras.
Parisians in the Luxembourg Gardens — Photo: Jirka Matousek
Some people in France think it's a mistake to forgo facial recognition technology. "After the shooting in Strasbourg on Dec. 16, 2018, we lost trace of Cherif Chekatt (the alleged shooter) for 48 hours. A higher-performing technology might have allowed us to locate him sooner," says Dominique Legrand, president of a national association of video-protection manufacturers.
All of those cameras in Nice weren't able to stop the attack.
But others argue that France has gone too far even without the use of facial recognition technology. Brest, on the Atlantic coast, continues to resist the use of surveillance cameras. It doesn't have a municipal police force either. And in the town of Pordic (6,700 inhabitants), two hours east, some 150 people demonstrated last year against plans to make the city "all safe" with cameras and armed police.
"Anti-camera" activists say that cameras undermine people's individual liberties. They also question their effectiveness and point to the high costs involved: between 8,000 and 15,000 euros per camera, plus maintenance fees and salaries for agents tasked with watching the videos.
Laurent Mucchielli, a research director with CNRS (France's National Center of Scientific Research) and author of a study called Vous êtes filmés! Enquête sur le bluff de la vidéosurveillance ("You're on camera! An investigation into the lies of video-surveillance"), agrees that cameras are not nearly as effective as they're made out to be. Mucchielli found that video footage helps solve only about 3% of criminal cases.
Nor are they proven to necessarily prevent crimes. As the Human Rights League points out, "All of those cameras in Nice weren't able to stop the murderous attack on July 14, 2016," when a man deliberately drove a 19-ton cargo truck through crowds of people, killing 86 and injuring more than 450 others.