A law that gives French intelligence services sweeping new spying abilities has cleared a final hurdle after France’s Constitutional Council widely approved the legislation.
PARIS — A law that gives French intelligence services sweeping new spying abilities has cleared a final hurdle after France’s Constitutional Council widely approved the legislation.
In a ruling published late Thursday, the council said it had struck down only a handful of unconstitutional provisions in the law, which gives French spying agencies the power to use phone taps, set up hidden cameras or microphones, and conduct bulk analysis of metadata, with almost no judicial oversight.
The ruling paves the way for the rest of the law to officially come into effect after it was passed in parliament last month.
The Socialist government, which introduced and pushed for the legislation, has argued that it is necessary to overhaul a legal framework for intelligence operations that predates the widespread use of cellphones and the Internet, especially in the face of increased terrorist threats.
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The government also said that intelligence operatives would have to go through a new supervisory commission for any surveillance operations.
But civil-rights groups and political opponents of the legislation point out that the commission can be overruled by the prime minister. They say that the law, parts of which apply not only to terrorism but also to other situations such as organized crime or “attacks on the republican form of institutions,” lacks sufficient checks and balances.
Members of the French parliament can group together and refer legislation to the Constitutional Council, which then strikes down any provisions it deems unconstitutional before the bill becomes law.
In this case, the council struck down a provision that allowed intelligence services to conduct spying operations in emergency situations without referring to the commission or getting authorization from the prime minister. The provision was a “clearly disproportionate breach of the right to the respect of privacy and of the secret of correspondences,” the council said in a statement.
The council also struck down a provision that allowed intelligence services to spy on communications sent to or received from abroad because the conditions for its use were not sufficiently clear.
But it let many other controversial provisions stand, including the bulk analysis of Internet metadata to track suspicious behavior, and the use in certain cases of so-called “IMSI catchers,” which capture all telephone, text-message and Internet conversations in a given area.
President François Hollande, who had taken the rare step of also referring the legislation to the council, said in a statement late Thursday that the rejection of those provisions did not threaten the overall balance of the law and would not prevent French intelligence services from protecting the country.
Hollande said the bill would enable French intelligence services to use “modern methods that are adapted to the threat we are faced with, while respecting individual rights and privacy.” On Twitter, Prime Minister Manuel Valls also welcomed the council’s decision, characterizing the bill as “decisive progress.”
The U.N. Human Rights Committee expressed worry about the legislation Thursday, saying in observations published before the Constitutional Council’s ruling that the law granted French intelligence services “excessively broad” and “intrusive” powers without “adequate and independent” control mechanisms.
Although the legislation was first announced and prepared last year, it was officially introduced, debated and voted upon only months after extremist Islamist gunmen killed 17 people in and around Paris in January. The government has also pointed to attacks that were recently thwarted or carried out to bolster its case that France is facing an unprecedented terrorist threat.
Amnesty International, one of the many groups that criticized the legislation, said in a statement that the law was a “major blow to human rights.”
“The U.S. and U.K. security agencies’ mass surveillance was denounced globally, yet French authorities appear to want to mimic their American and British counterparts in allowing the authorities to intercept and access people’s communications at will,” said Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia.