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. 

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