French anti-terror bill moves forward amid civil liberties debate

President Hollande has walked a thin line against terror since the November Paris attacks, caught between calls for tighter security and civil liberties protests. 

Christophe Ena/ AP
France's National Assembly debates a constitutional reform bill in Paris on February 10, 2016. The lower house of Parliament approved a controversial bill to revoke citizenship from convicted French terrorists.

A controversial French anti-terror bill with more symbolic than strategic weight came closer to national law on Wednesday, as delegates in the National Assembly approved a measure to strip convicted French terrorists of their citizenship.

The bill is one of a two-part measure under debate, which would alter the French Constitution. As the French government has struggled to come to terms with terrorism on its home turf, the solidarity displayed in the wake of terror attacks in January and November 2015 has frayed into sharp disagreement about how to best prevent the next one. One camp says that stricter surveillance and safety laws are required to protect traditional French values, while the other argues that such laws would undermine the "liberté, egalité, fraternité" France prides in itself. 

The measure to strip citizenship from convicted terrorists passed, 317-199, in the National Assembly, where it was sponsored by Prime Minister Manuel Valls of President François Hollande's Socialist Party. In order to pass into law, it would need to pass in the Senate, as well, and then earn approval from at least three-fifths of a final bicameral vote. 

The bill had attracted widespread criticism in its original form, which specifically applied to French citizens with dual-nationality. Many feared it would target the country's large Muslim population, many of whom are immigrants, and Justice Minister Christiane Taubira resigned in protest in January. Ms. Taubira had previously argued that improving opportunity for alienated immigrants was key to a counter-terrorism strategy, and warned that France must "counter these new dangers without losing the soul of our principles."

The dual-citizen clause was removed, but for many, fear persists that the government's toughened security laws, put in place after Islamic State killed 130 Parisians in November, present a threat to civil liberties. The country once skeptical, even disdainful, of the United States' "Patriot Act" and other "War on Terror" measures now finds itself debating its own. Thousands marched in late January to protest the citizenship bill, as well as a proposal to extend the post-attack State of Emergency and protect emergency powers in the Constitution.

More than 300 home raids have taken place since November, often using special police powers granted by the State of Emergency. On Monday, the National Assembly approved a measure to extend it three months past its current expiration on February 26.

After the November attacks, when feelings of national unity were soaring, 77 percent of French people told pollsters they would approve stricter social media surveillance in order to fight terrorism. 

"The French are just waking up to the fact that we, more than others, are a country at war," center-right deputy Alain Marsaud, told The Wall Street Journal in December.

But critics say the citizenship bill is not a strategic way to fight radicalization. For suicide attacks, in particular, losing one's citizenship seems a poor deterrent, making the issue more indicative of how France sees itself than how it plans to prevent attacks. 

Opponents have compared the bills to dark historical precedents, such as the World War II-era Vichy regime. But Hollande's government may be introducing strict measures in order to curtail rising popularity of far-right parties, such as the National Front, whose frequently xenophobic rhetoric got a boost from recent security concerns.

The government may be "more accurately reading the mood of the frightened public than Socialist Party notables and the intellectuals who object," as Adam Nossiter wrote for The New York Times, suggesting that elites' protests contrast with the general public's more muted acceptance of the bill. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.