France remains “in a state of war”, its interior minister said on Tuesday before lawmakers voted on an anti-terrorism bill that will increase police powers to search and restrict people’s movements but which rights groups say will hurt civil liberties.
Parliament’s lower house is expected to adopt the legislation which will boost the powers of security agencies at a time when the French authorities are struggling to deal with the threat posed by foreign jihadists and homegrown militants.
More than 240 people have been killed in France in attacks since early 2015 by assailants who pledged allegiance to or were inspired by Islamic State. In the latest attack on Sunday, a man cried Allahu Akbar – God is Greatest – before fatally stabbing two women outside the railway station in the city of Marseille.
“We are still in a state of war,” Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said in an interview on France Inter radio. “We have foiled numerous attacks since the start of the year that would have led to many deaths.”
Emergency powers in place since November 2015, when Islamist suicide bombers and gunmen carried out attacks in Paris and killed 130 people, have played a significant role in enabling intelligence agencies to disrupt plots, the government says.
The new legislation would see many of those emergency powers enshrined in law, with limited oversight from the judiciary.
The interior ministry, without approval from a judge, will be able to set up security zones when there is a threat, restricting the movement of people and vehicles in and out and with power to carry out searches inside the area.
It will have more power to shut down places of worship if intelligence agencies believe religious leaders are inciting violence in France or abroad or justifying acts of terrorism.
Police will also have greater powers to raid private property, if they have judicial approval, and there will be an increased ability to impose restrictions on people’s movements, including via electronic surveillance tags, if they are regarded as a threat to national security.
SOCIAL COHESION THREATENED
President Emmanuel Macron, painted by rivals as weak on security during his election campaign, has already acted to bolster counter-terrorism efforts, creating a task force in June to improve coordination among France‘s multiple intelligence agencies.
The anti-terrorism bill has met little resistance from the public, with people still on edge after the series of Islamist-related attacks and smaller incidents that have followed.
But rights campaigners say it will curb civil liberties.
“France‘s new counter-terrorism bill grants the executive far-reaching powers to clamp down on the ability of ordinary people in France to worship, assemble, move freely, express themselves and enjoy their privacy,” Human Rights Watch said last month.
Jacques Toubon, head of France‘s public human rights watchdog, warned the legislation could be seen as targeting Muslims and risked unravelling France‘s social cohesion.
In a July report to parliament, Toubon said the legislation gave no precise legal definition of terrorism, which left it open to abuse.
Nonetheless, some conservative opponents of Macron say the draft legislation, which is not as all-encompassing as the state of emergency currently allows, does not go far enough.
“We need to rearm the state,” right-wing lawmaker Eric Ciotti told France Info radio. He called for authorities to have greater powers to expel foreigners who threaten public safety.
Ciotti said he and a number of legislators from centre-right The Republicans party would vote against the text. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen also said her party, which counts seven lawmakers, would not support the bill.