PARIS - In January 2015, a stunned France reeled from the first of multiple terrorist attacks it would endure. The target: the saucy and irreverent Charlie Hebdo newspaper, known for poking fun at religions and just about everything else.
Brandishing pencils and banners, millions flooded the streets of Paris, defending the right to free expression.
Then came the troop and police patrols. And that November, after another deadly terror strike on the Bataclan theater and other popular nightspots, a tough, months-long emergency law. Rights activists claimed free speech and other basic rights were slowly and enduringly eroding.
Five years later – as France weathers another crisis and another state of emergency – they fear that is happening again, under the coronavirus pandemic.
“We think it could be durable, and that the COVID crisis is a pretext to push different surveillance technologies,” says Benoit Piedallu of digital rights group, La Quadrature du Net.
Critics point to a raft of areas where they believe personal freedoms have been compromised under the health emergency, which saw France imposing one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns.
Some – such as reports of racial profiling and police violence during confinement – are not new, but allegedly are heightened with the health crisis. Along with George Floyd’s killing in the United States, they are helping to fuel nationwide protests against police violence.
Other COVID-19-fighting measures – including the use of drones to police the lockdown and a new virus-tracing app – are sparking accusations of a creeping French surveillance state.
On June 17th, France's CNIL data protection watchdog warned that new technology, including cameras and thermal scanners, to help track compliance with coronavirus rules, risked citizen fears of surveillance and undermining democracy.
The organizations using these tools, including France's RATP public transport firm and Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport, say they have taken measures to respect privacy rights.
To be sure, similar concerns are being echoed elsewhere around the globe as governments fight the pandemic. But in France – where authorities still promote the country’s revolution-era moniker as the “land of human rights” – activists say the new measures fit a years’-long pattern.
“The principle of a state emergency is exceptional restrictions to rights and freedoms to respond to a crisis,” said Anne-Sophie Simpere, spokeswoman for Amnesty France. “But by experience, each time we’ve had a state of emergency, we’ve never returned to the state of ‘before.’”
Liberty is the rule, government says
French authorities argue otherwise, claiming the health restrictions are exceptional and basic liberties are the norm. Daily death tolls are down to a few dozen at most from an April high of more than 800.
"Tens of thousands of lives have been saved by our choices, our actions," French President Emmanuel Macron said in a June 14 address to the nation announcing a further easing of restrictions.
With the government’s scientific advisory body claiming the pandemic under control, authorities plan to lift the state of emergency next month, although they warn that some measures may be reinstated if cases rise again.
French have sharply criticized the government for underfunded health services and a dearth of masks, yet there is much less opposition to the health restrictions. A May survey by Harris Interactive, released just before France began unwinding lockdown, found nearly that two-thirds of respondents said they endured confinement “easily.”
“I didn’t think it was too strict, and I didn’t find my liberties infringed,” said Gilda, a Paris resident catching some sun in a newly opened park. Gilda declined to provide her last name, as did her husband, who said he found some measures a “bit overboard.”
“They did it for us to avoid having more deaths,” said 19-year-old student Hanae Violay, who said she strictly followed the lockdown rules. “I think it was a good decision.”
Critics say the survey findings are no surprise. Polls showed similar approval for the 2015 emergency law, with two-thirds of French backing it early on.
“People want less democracy during these periods, because they are afraid,” said Arie Halimi, lawyer for the French Human Rights League. “And fear is the most important leverage for states.”
The 2015 emergency measures – allowing police to conduct raids and impose house arrest without previous judicial green light – were extended several times. That year, Macron’s centrist government replaced them with a tough new anti-terror law, making permanent some of the exceptional powers.
Divided opinions: drones and tracing app
Rights groups fear a similar situation today. Last month, France’s highest administrative court barred the use of drones to monitor lockdown compliance, after the Rights League and the Quadrature du Net filed a privacy complaint. Authorities previously used drones to surveil yellow-vest protests and migrant movements, among other purposes.
The drone ban is not permanent; it is supposed to last only until technological or other ways to address the privacy concerns.
“That doesn’t mean they can’t be used in the future,” said Halimi, of the Rights League, asserting that France risks entering an “Orwellian era.”
Also controversial is a virus-tracing app released earlier this month, making France the first major European country to use one. Dubbed “StopCovid,” the smart phone application aims to warn users if they have been around someone who later tested positive.
Downloading it is voluntary, and the government insists it will be temporary and fully respect privacy rights.
“You have to be confident and trust your state,” French Digital Minister Cedric O told The Associated Press. “But we’re in a democratic state; we have checks and balances.”
Authorities have claimed early success, with roughly 1.4 million French downloading the app within days after it was rolled out. Still, that amounts to less than 2 percent of the population. Surveys suggest fewer than half of all French plan to use it. That is not enough, many experts say, for it to work effectively.
Both data watchdog CNIL and the French parliament greenlighted the technology, but critics still worry about digital creep.
An April letter signed by hundreds of academics raised concerns that the data gathered by the app could be repurposed for mass surveillance ends, a fear also raised by rights advocates.
“Protecting health rights is also a fundamental right,” said Amnesty’s Simpere. “But today for us, the balance between efficiency of an application like StopCovid and fundamental rights isn’t respected.”
Scott Marcus, senior fellow at Brussels think-tank Bruegel, said the French app “looks reasonable,” and appears to reflect government promises to limit sharing health data, although he questions its effectiveness.
The more fundamental question, he said, for French and other Europeans to consider, is “How much do you trust your government?”
“Essentially the data collection shouldn’t be longer than absolutely necessary, and shouldn’t be retained longer than absolutely necessary,” Marcus said. "The COVID-19 problem could be with us for years. So it’s a genuine worry.”