The French government is considering a new anti-terrorism bill that is already being criticized for eroding basic civil liberties. The French legislation echoes a similar bill in Britain, and may foreshadow, some say, a tougher European approach toward terrorism in the future.
Sponsored by French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the terrorism legislation would offer a new arsenal of terrorism fighting tools for France's judiciary and police. Among other measures, the legislation would stiffen prison sentences for convicted terrorists, increase video surveillance in public areas, and allow police to monitor suspects traveling to countries like Afghanistan, known to have terrorist training camps.
Mr. Sarkozy argues the bill is critical in helping crack down on the growing threat of terrorism in France, and in helping protect French citizens.
In the past 18 months, Europe has been hit by two major terrorist attacks: the March 2004 attacks in Madrid, and July's bombings in London. Both have been blamed on Islamist extremists.
Experts say France is a prime target to launch a third. This year alone, French police have arrested dozens of suspected Islamist extremists, including a number who allegedly headed rings to recruit and send radicals to join the insurgency in Iraq.
But human rights groups and other critics argue Mr. Sarkozy's bill threatens basic freedoms in France. That includes the French Human Rights League. Jean-Pierre Dubois is the League's president.
"We are very critical about this draft [bill], because we find it both inefficient, and dangerous for civil liberties," said Mr. Dubois. "We say first inefficient, because the draft proposals have already been tried elsewhere, especially in Great Britain. That is mainly the case for the multiplication of video cameras in the streets and supermarkets and so on."
But Mr. Dubois notes the British video surveillance was not able to stop the July bombings in London. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has subsequently introduced his own anti-terrorism bill since the attacks. Mr. Blair's legislation has sparked similar concerns in Britain about its impact on civil liberties.
Critics like Mr. Dubois in France fear tougher anti-terrorism laws may become a European-wide trend. While advocates argue stiffer legislation may be necessary, critics say it will erode European democracies and paradoxically increase fear of terrorism among the population.