In France, The Patriot Act Temptation

After the Paris attacks, French authorities are looking for new tools to combat terrorism. But the risk is high for undermining basic democratic liberties.

Who watches the watchmen?
Who watches the watchmen?
Jacques Follorou and Franck Johannès


PARIS — There's nothing worse for the legal system than these moments of intense unanimity, when the wave of emotion sweeping over France risks burying all reason. The penal code, however, is difficult to move in reverse. The exceptional measures taken in times of crisis are forever enshrined. Backtracking is near impossible.

Little by little, exceptional procedures supplant common law. After the killings at Charlie Hebdo and Kosher market, do we need a French Patriot Act? The police lobby — it's only fair — has started to ask for special powers to erase its failures and increase the tools at its disposal.

The French cabinet held a Monday crisis meeting on domestic security, but the idea itself of launching a European "war on terrorism" is a worrying one. It became enshrined in U.S. law seven weeks after the 9/11 attacks, following a Congressional resolution.

The decree sanctioned "the notion of "illegal enemy combatant,"" explains Mireille Delmas-Marty, professor at the Collège de France. "These are people who can benefit neither from the guarantees and rights of the penal code, because they're enemies, nor from those of war prisoners, because they're illegal fighters," she explains.

The role of the judge is marginalized: This is war. With the Patriot Act, military commissions have become jurisdictions, and despite the resistance of the Supreme Court, they openly violate international law. Prisoners at Guantánamo have been held and tortured in Cuba at the sole will of the American intelligence services, outside all guarantees granted by U.S. law.

What's more, these "extraordinary" measures have cast their shadow over Europe, where certain countries have agreed to host clandestine "interrogation" centers. In the name of anti-terrorism, the NSA has woven a spy network that reaches as far as German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cellphone. The Patriot Act, which was intended to last only four years, has been extended twice, currently through 2015.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in Paris on Jan. 12 — Photo: Zheng Bin/Xinhua/ZUMA

In France, the government passed a law in November that plans to prevent suspected jihadists from leaving the country and created a new crime, that of "individual terrorist undertaking." Not all decrees have been signed yet, but it’s already clear that the new legislation in no way prevents people from reaching Syria and would do nothing to prevent the kind of crimes witnessed in Paris last week. What was already the second anti-terrorist law of President François Hollande's five-year term was the 15th such bill since 1986.

Power to check power

Prime Minister Manuel Valls was quick to observe that it "will without a doubt be necessary to take new measures," adding, however, that "we're not going to construct legislation in haste." But the pressure to go further is mounting.

The former head of French interior intelligence services, Bernard Squarcini, said in an interview that French authorities had monitored one of the Kouachi brothers, following a tip from U.S. intelligence. "But it was fruitless. And that's when the French legal framework kicks in: The president of the National Commission for the Control of Security Interceptions (CNCIS) tells you to stop because the target of your request is not active."

He characterizes it as a loophole in the system. "Intelligence services cannot work with the provided toolbox," he says. "That's OK if you have to repair an old Peugeot 403, but if you want to repair a BMW, you might need a new toolbox."

It's a strong image, but it conceals something essential. The CNCIS is a small organization with cumbersome procedure. But most of the anti-terrorism protocol is based on a 2006 law that circumvents the agency. Reinforced in 2013, the legislation gives the police extended power under the supervision of the prime minister and doesn't limit itself to terrorism. Also under its rubric are organized crime and certain financial-related felonies, which allows it to conduct mass eavesdropping and real-time geolocation.

And yet, "We're talking about terrorism here," Squarcini insists. "We need to raise the standard of the debate," he says, adding that a new "legal framework" is needed and that the country has lost "two-and-a-half years" (since the defeat of Nicolas Sarkozy and his own eviction as head of the interior intelligence agency).

But one anti-terrorist magistrate disagrees. "There are no real loopholes," he told Le Monde. "We have all the tools we need."

Still, the legislation undeniably needs some updating. A new intelligence bill is in the pipeline and should be voted on before the end of Hollande's mandate. It can go two ways. It can either be a French Patriot Act, or it can grant extra powers to the fight against terrorism but keep the changes far more moderate.

Until last week, there was talk of transforming the National Commission for the Control of Security Interceptions into a body that would oversee phone interceptions, data collection and geolocation, with swifter procedures but with the kind of independent, third-party oversight establishied in 1991 law.

As the legendary French lawyer and philosopher Montesquieu once said: To prevent any abuse of power, "It is necessary from the very nature of things that power should be a check to power."

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.



• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.


"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.



For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.


Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

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We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.


Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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