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France has just enacted a law that allows state intelligence agencies to spy on millions of its own citizens.

A protester holds a placard reading "I'm under surveillance" as he demonstrates against the surveillance bill a day ahead of its vote in parliament in Paris May 4, 2015.  © 2015 Reuters

Of course, France has the right to protect its people from terrorism, especially in light of the terrible Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris this January. But this new law goes far beyond tackling terror.

The French government is now free to conduct sweeping surveillance of people not suspected of any wrongdoing on grounds like “defending and promoting … France’s major economic, industrial and scientific interests,” and “preventing interferences with the republican nature of institutions”.

In enacting its problematic new mass surveillance law, the French government has ignored warnings from the United Nations and human rights groups.

If mass surveillance is legal in a country like France, why shouldn’t it be the same elsewhere?

The law “grants excessively large powers of very intrusive surveillance on the basis of broad and ill-defined aims, without prior judicial authorization and without an adequate and independent oversight mechanism.” So said the UN Human Rights Committee last week, after reviewing France’s compliance with the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The law has also been criticized by both rights groups and France’s own human rights advisory body for granting the country’s intelligence agencies sweeping surveillance powers with no meaningful oversight.

Yet the government ignored these warnings and published the law this weekend, three days after it was validated by the Constitutional Council, the body that assesses the compatibility of French laws with France’s constitution. The council did strike down several aspects of the law, including one that would have allowed intelligence agencies to conduct surveillance in emergency situations without even the prime minister’s authorization, or input from the new National Control Commission on Intelligence Techniques. The council also rejected a provision on the surveillance of communications sent or received outside France for the purpose of “protecting the fundamental interests of the nation,” as the law doesn’t clarify how that data would be used, stored, or destroyed.

Instead of using the recent debate about mass surveillance following the Edward Snowden revelations as a chance to bring its legislation in line with the rights to privacy and free expression, as required by the treaties it has ratified, France will now allow its own citizens to be spied on by the state for the flimsiest of reasons.

As well as failing its own people, this sets a dangerous precedent internationally. For – as some will now say – if mass surveillance is legal in a country like France, why shouldn’t it be the same elsewhere? 


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