Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Ceci n'est pas un Acte Patrote.

Throughout the debate on the new surveillance law, passed today by the Assemblée Nationale, the government repeatedly insisted that this was "not a French version of the Patriot Act." Perhaps not. If anything, it grants even more sweeping powers to French intelligence services than the Patriot Act did to their American counterparts. Under the Patriot Act there is at least a semblance--a fig leaf--of independent judicial control by the FISA court, even if that court exercises its nominal powers only once in a blue moon. In France, the only oversight will be administrative: the intelligence services will control themselves. The refrain of "not another Patriot Act" seems to indicate a guilty conscience more than anything else.

I am not a zealot on privacy protection. I prefer intelligence-gathering by electronic means to military intervention as a response to terrorism. I deplore the confusion of anti-terrorist police work with warfare. But the watchers need to be watched, in view of the immense intrusive powers they have developed with the aid of modern communications technology. France, in its understandable desire to respond swiftly and effectively to the January attacks, has over-reacted, just as the US did after 9/11. This is unfortunate, and France will probably come to regret it.


Conveniently, Robert Ménard, mayor of Béziers and fellow traveler of the Front National, has opened himself to attacks for alleged fichage of schoolchildren because he said on TV that 64.6% of Béziers students were Muslims. But the fact that the mayor is linked to the FN merely forecloses debate and obscures the underlying issues.

Now, as regular readers know, I think there are reasonable grounds for the collection of certain ethnic statistics. What is problematic here is the term "Muslim," since the city has no idea whether a child with the first name "Mohammed" practices Islam or any other religion--and it needn't know. But it can be useful for educational planning to know, for example, what percentage of students speak French at home or have French-speaking parents. Staffing and resource decisions can be more intelligently made with such information than without it, and if it is not collected formally, it will very likely be collected informally by school officials. So one might as well be open about it. It seems to me problematic to make "republican" synonymous with "blind to social and cultural realities." But I know that many French friends will disagree with me.