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French Government Expected To Expand Power Of Surveillance


Government surveillance is a big topic on both sides of the Atlantic. Here in the U.S., it was recently limited by Congress. In France, Parliament is expanding the government surveillance powers. A bill that easily passed the Lower House is expected to be approved by the French Senate today. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Prime Minister Manuel Valls introduced the surveillance bill in the wake of January's deadly terrorist attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket. But the prime minister reminded lawmakers the bill had already been in the works to monitor French citizens traveling to and from Syria.


PRIME MINISTER MANUEL VALLS: (Through interpreter) This law is not a hasty response to an emergency. It's the result of a long and well-thought-out process. It will help protect our citizens from terrorism and guarantee public liberties by setting clear rules. There will be no more gray zones.

BEARDSLEY: France has been engaged in vast surveillance since attacks in the 1980s by radical Algerian groups, says Sylvie Kauffmann, editorial director of Le Monde.

SYLVIE KAUFFMANN: France was one of the first Western democracies to take very active anti-terrorism measures. But strangely enough, there was no law on intelligence services.

BEARDSLEY: The new law will permit police to hide microphones in suspects' cars and houses and place antennas to monitor cell phone calls. But the most contentious point is the collection of raw data or metadata on regular citizens using black boxes attached to Internet servers.

JEAN DANIEL GUYOT: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Entrepreneur Jean Daniel Guyot says he'll never allow the French government to take his customer data. Guyot founded an Internet company called Captain Train that allows customers to buy train tickets across 19 European countries. He says his company has financial and travel information on millions of people.

GUYOT: They want to put black boxes in the data centers.

BEARDSLEY: So in your data center?

GUYOT: Yes. But we can move the data in another data center in other countries.

BEARDSLEY: Guyot says plenty of companies will move their servers out of France. The black boxes are supposed to be able to pick out terrorist-related patterns in the data with a special algorithm. But Frederick Douzet with the French Institute of Advanced National Defense says no one even knows if the algorithms work.

FREDERICK DOUZET: The bill was rushed through accelerated procedures. Representatives are not too familiar with these issues and have just followed the government because of the trauma of the terrorist attacks.

BEARDSLEY: Douzet says mass data collection also raises concerns about civil liberties.


BERNARD CAZENEUVE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told Parliament that he doesn't understand how powerful private companies such as Facebook get away with collecting vast quantities of personal data.


CAZENEUVE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "But when it comes to a government wanting to fight terrorism, all of a sudden we're Big Brother," said Cazeneuve. To placate critics, the French government will give the bill for review to the nation's constitutional court after it passes the Senate. Prime Minister Valls says he expects the measure to become law this summer. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.