The National Assembly of France on Wednesday approved controversial legislation that permits remote activation of mobile phones for audio and video surveillance during investigations of organized crime and terrorism.
The critical article of the justice programming bill was validated by a vote of 80 to 24, with representatives from the presidential camp, LR, and RN voting in favor, and those from Nupes, including Liot group president Bertrand Pancher, opposing it.
The legislation encompasses two key provisions. Firstly, it allows real-time geolocation of individuals under investigation for serious crimes or offenses carrying a minimum sentence of five years. Initially, the Senate sought to restrict this to crimes and offenses with a minimum ten-year sentence, but the assembly reverted to the government’s version.
Secondly, it enables remote audio and visual surveillance for individuals implicated in terrorism, organized crime, and delinquency. Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti insists that this provision will only affect a handful of cases annually.
The left opposes these provisions, arguing they intrude on personal privacy, with LFI alluding to an “authoritarian slide” and citing criticisms from attorneys and NGOs.
An amendment proposed by Naïma Moutchou from the presidential camp stipulates that surveillance must be justified by the seriousness of the alleged crime and applied for a duration strictly proportionate to the objective. However, Mireille Clapot, an outlier in the presidential camp, expressed concern over the disproportionality between the intended goals and the proposed measures.
The Minister of Justice, Éric Dupond-Moretti, defends the bill, suggesting it could potentially save lives and is far from the totalitarian regime depicted in George Orwell’s “1984”. The ruling party highlights the checks and balances in place, emphasizing that surveillance would be reserved for the most serious cases, authorized for 15 days at a time, extendable to a maximum of six months.
Dupond-Moretti likens this to traditional surveillance methods involving microphones or cameras in suspects’ homes, adding that remote activation of connected devices is already employed by intelligence services, albeit without judicial authorization. He further argues that geolocation is an existing practice, used in cases of serious offenses.
Despite resistance, the deputies strengthened safeguards by extending protection from such surveillance to additional professions, including doctors and journalists. However, efforts to extend this protection to non-credentialed journalists were unsuccessful.
In addition, the expansive Article 3 of the bill provides for the extension of nighttime searches and allows teleconsultations for medical examinations during prolonged police custody. Opposition MPs failed in their bid to remove the provision enabling house arrest with electronic monitoring due to procedural errors.
Justice Minister Dupond-Moretti defended the provision as an added modality, while communist deputy Elsa Faucillon countered, questioning if this was an attempt to normalize procedural errors due to a lack of justice system resources.
President Emmanuel Macron in May warned that the French government may shut down social media platforms in light of violent rioting that has ravaged the country in the wake of a controversial police shooting.
“We have to think about the social networks, about the bans we’ll have to put in place. When things get out of control, we might need to be able to regulate or cut them off,” Macron told a meeting of mayors on Tuesday according to media reports.
Macron and his ministers have criticized platforms like Snapchat, TikTok, and encrypted messaging service Telegram, for propagating violent content following the police shooting of a 17-year-old, Nahel M., on June 27. Macron expressed concern over the misuse of social media for harmful activities, stating that it poses a significant problem when used as a tool for organizing violence or potential killings.
Green party leader Marine Tondelier expressed her apprehension on France Inter, stating that it’s alarming when the proposed solution involves shutting down social media platforms, reflecting on the current state of affairs in France.
Several politicians, both from the left and right, criticized the proposal. Mathilde Panot, the leader of the far-left party France Unbowed, compared Macron’s proposal to North Korea’s strict control over internet access, while conservative parliamentary leader Olivier Marleix compared the suggestion to practices in countries like China, Iran, and North Korea.
Even within Macron’s own party, there were critics. MP Eric Bothorel suggested that to cut off social media networks would undermine the strength of democracy over the tools misused against it.
The French parliament’s passage of the bill would be another expansion of the state’s surveillance powers allegedly undertaken to defend “democracy.”
Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen has called for a new general election in France due to Macron’s inability to tame the rampaging rioters who have set the nation ablaze for weeks.