As France reels in the wake of last week's deadly attacks in Paris, the government is seeking to implement a raft of new counter-terror measures, with some lawmakers even proposing the instatement of a French version of the US' Patriot Act. But rights advocates say that the country is dancing a fine line between the need for national security and its long-cherished liberty.
On Tuesday, the French parliament's National Assembly spontaneously broke into La Marseillaise, the country's national anthem, following a minute of silence for the 17 dead victims of the Paris attacks. In a speech to the assembly, Prime Minister Manuel Valls praised the police response and reiterated his commitments to secularism and the Republic, as well as to fighting anti-Semitism.
"We must respond to this exceptional situation with exceptional measures," Valls said, adding that any response to the attacks would be enacted under the rule of law.
Valls then called for better air travel monitoring of "high-risk passengers," closer monitoring of persons convicted under the country's anti-terrorism measures, and announced a new government initiative, piloted in Paris' Fresnes prison last November, to isolate radical Islamists in French jails.
At the end of his address, Valls received a standing ovation.
Valls's speech came just a few days after the Republican rallies that assembled some 4 million marchers throughout the country, and some compared his comments to George Bush's "war on terror" speech following the 9/11 attacks. Responses to the PM's proposed measures have been divided.
Earlier on Sunday, French politician Valérie Pécresse, a higher education and research minister under former president Nicolas Sarkozy, took to Twitter to call for the enactment of a French "Patriot Act" — the 2001 US legislation aimed at combatting terrorism that has previously come under fire in France for violating civil liberties.
In a televised interview with France 2 Monday, former Interior Minister Claude Guéant spoke about the country's new preventive counter-terrorism measures, saying: "There are freedoms that can easily be abandoned."
Other French politicians, however, have voiced their concern over a French patriot act. In an opinion piece published by French daily Le Monde, former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin warned against the urge to implement "exceptional measures."
"Terror attacks encourage the renunciation of democratic values, and amid concerns for our security, the sacrifice of the liberties of others, at home or abroad," de Villepin said. "The spiral of suspicion created in the United States by the Patriot Act and the enduring legitimization of torture or illegal detention has today caused that country to lose its moral compass."
Former justice minister and high-profile criminal lawyer Robert Badinter, who successfully sponsored a bill for the abolition of the death penalty in France in 1981, told French daily Libération that, "You don't rely on exceptional laws and legislation to defend freedom against your enemies."
Advanced security measures
In December, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve revealed a staggering increase in French nationals who had joined or were planning to join the Islamic State. According to the minister, some 1,200 French nationals left or tried to leave the country since the beginning of 2014. In response, the French government toughened-up the country's terror laws in November.
The new legislation, which has already been the object of some controversy, enforces a travel ban on individuals suspected of planning acts of terrorism, enables authorities to block websites that glorify or instruct such acts, and prescribes punishment for individuals on the basis of assumed terrorism.
Now, the government is seeking to expand security measures again with a new action plan that could further encroach on ordinary citizens' personal liberties. The plan will be better understood in eight days when Cazeneuve submits a proposal to beef-up the country's intelligence services.
Generally speaking however, it appears the Internet will be a primary target.
At a gathering of 11 European interior ministers Sunday, Cazeneuve called for increased Internet surveillance of suspected terrorists that would involve "the flagging and removal of illegal content, and content that glorifies terrorism or incites violence or hatred."
In Tuesday's address, Valls also unveiled strengthened surveillance measures to monitor suspected terrorist activity on the Internet and on social media, which he said were commonly "used to recruit, to facilitate contact, and carry out attacks."
But social media users were quick to point out the paradox between France hosting an international rally to defend the values of freedom, and the government's call for measures that arguably limit civil liberties.
"How far must we go to purge French Internet browsing of all illegal content?" asked Benoît Thieulin, president of the French Digital Council. "Examine every Twitter feed to make sure there is no illegal content? Ask Facebook to compile a list of words to preemptively censor?"
Après 4 millions de Français dans la rue aux cris de— Maitre Eolas ?? (@Maitre_Eolas) 12 Janvier 2015
"If there is a message to be gleaned from the fight fought by the Charlie Hebdo journalists, it's that freedom is non-negotiable," Thieulin told VICE News. "Let us not forget the lessons of 9/11, which had terrible consequences. France, I hope, will not fall into that trap."
Thieulin also noted that recent increased web censorship in the UK, where Internet providers are now using a default filter for porn sites, has been met with a public backlash, as "close to 20 percent of the most popular websites are blocked by at least one telecommunications operator… only 4 percent of which are porn sites."
A "considerable" arsenal
After the Paris attacks, the government was forced to acknowledge its own intelligence failings, especially following reports that the Kouachi brothers, who carried out the attack on Charlie Hebdo, had been under surveillance for years. Authorities reportedly stopped monitoring the brothers in the summer of 2014, when they failed to gather sufficient evidence of terrorist activity to renew a four-month surveillance operation.
France still remains on high alert, as authorities claim that potential accomplices and members of an extremist cell linked to the attacks remain at large. This week, the government announced the deployment of 10,000 troops across the country to protect potential terrorist targets, half of which will be stationed outside Jewish schools and places of worship.
But Jean-François Daguzan, deputy director of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, told VICE News that boosting police presence is not necessarily a solution to France's security woes.
"We are one of the best-armed states in terms of fighting against terror," Daguzan said. "We have a considerable arsenal... You can't just keep on increasing resources ad infinitum."
Follow Mélodie Bouchaud on Twitter: @meloboucho