France passes laws to fight terrorism, but critics call them excessive

PARIS – French lawmakers have passed two bills that the government says will strengthen its ability to fight terrorism and Islamist extremism following a series of attacks that have heightened the sense of insecurity before the presidential election next year.

Debate over the bills, passed Thursday and Friday, had been pushed out of the headlines by an outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, but critics say they are restricting civil liberties and extending police powers to an worrying degree.

One of the new laws gives French security services more tools to track suspected terrorists and monitor them online; it was adopted Thursday evening by the National Assembly, lower house of Parliament, by 108 votes to 20.

The other, voted on Friday by the same chamber by 49 votes to 19, aims to combat extremist ideas at all levels of French society. Among a series of measures, it toughens home schooling conditions, toughens the rules for associations requesting state subsidies and gives authorities new powers to close places of worship deemed to be tolerant of hateful or violent ideas. .

Both measures had been pushed by President Emmanuel Macron and his government as necessary responses to a persistent threat posed by Islamist extremism against France’s ideals, in particular secularism, and its security.

“We are giving ourselves the means to fight against those who abuse religion to attack the values ​​of the Republic”, declared Gérald Darmanin, Minister of the Interior. on Twitter.

Over the past year, people identified as Islamist extremists fatally stabbed a policeman, killed three people in a Nice basilica and beheaded a teacher near Paris who showed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during a class discussion on freedom of expression. As recently as this week, the government Recount that the country’s authorities be on high alert after al-Qaeda released a video threatening France about the cartoons.

Right-wing opponents, where politicians scramble to run for next year’s election have made security a key issue, say the two laws do not go far enough. Human rights groups and left-wing critics say the measures are onerous and that Mr Macron’s government has turned to increasingly repressive policies.

Anne-Sophie Simpere, an Amnesty International activist, said the anti-terrorism law, like others before it, was too broad and vague, raising concerns that it was being poorly applied.

“Often one of the government’s arguments is that these restrictive measures have been used in a reasonable way,” she said. “But these tools are here to stay, regardless of which government is in power, and there is a lot of room for interpretation.”

The measure on Islamist extremism had been hotly debated in Parliament in recent months, especially in the Senate, the upper house dominated by the right.

There, lawmakers voted on a series of amendments that critics said were blatantly anti-Muslim or xenophobic but did not appear in the final version of the bill. These proposals included a headscarf ban for parents accompanying children on school trips.

The anti-terrorism law enshrines and expands measures that were first introduced on an experimental basis in a comprehensive anti-terrorism bill of 2017. Among other things, it grants the security services the power to monitor and restrict the movement of people who were imprisoned for terrorism for an extended period after their release. The law also allows security services to use computer algorithms that automatically process data from phones and web addresses to detect potential suspects.

The law on Islamist extremism is broad, with a series of measures that seek to eradicate what the government sees as the sources of extremism in every corner of French society. Critics like Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the far-left France Unbowed party, say instead that the measures cover an “anti-Muslim” bias.

The law changes the rules governing home schooling by requiring parents to seek state authorization – previously, parents only had to officially declare their intentions – and restricting the reasons that would justify such authorization .

The education of children at home, which is not widespread in France, is seen by the government as a possible source of “separatism” which, according to it, undermines French values, for example by giving conservative Muslim families a way to keep their children away from public schools. .

The law also extends strict religious neutrality obligations beyond civil servants to anyone who is a private contractor in a public service, such as bus drivers. It makes associations requesting state subsidies sign a commitment to “respect the principles and values ​​of the Republic”. And, it prohibits health professionals from issuing “virginity certificates” before religious marriages.

An article in the new law, added after the beheading of the schoolteacher – whose murder came after videos criticizing him circulated widely on social media – criminalizes posting someone’s private information online. ‘there is a clear intention to endanger him.

The law also creates a new offense of “separatism”, with sentences of up to five years in prison and fines of up to 75,000 euros, or $ 88,000, for people who threaten or assault an elected official or an official. civil servant because they do not want to respect the rules governing French public services, for example if a person becomes violent in a public hospital because he refuses to be examined by a female doctor.

Some lawmakers have already warned that they will file a petition with the French Constitutional Council to verify that the new measures comply with the French Constitution, meaning some could be overturned. Key articles from another security law passed in April, for example, were struck down the following month, forcing the government to introduce yet another bill.

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