France’s police bill: surveillance for the long haul

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This artice was originally published by Félix Tréguer on about:intel

The French government seems not to be interested in tackling systemic police violence. Instead, one of the most defining features of Macron’s first term as France’s head of state lies in the fast-paced expansion of state surveillance powers. A case in point is Parliament’s impending adoption of the “Bill on Global Security”, which shows the current administration is a leading representative of the rising wave of authoritarian-liberalism currently sweeping Europe.

On 4 December 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron gave a rare interview on police violence. It was less than two weeks after music producer Michel Zecler, a 41 year-old black man, was arrested by police officers after being brutally evicted from his own studio and assaulted. It was about two weeks after the Paris police ruthlessly dismantled a camp-ground of migrants in the French capital, and a mere few days after more than 130,000 people took to the streets across the country to march against the Global Security Bill – a piece of legislation intending to ramp up police powers and legalise new surveillance technologies.

But as this article will explain, rather than the expected soothing words to the nation, rather than opening the way to meaningful police reform, Macron’s priority that night aimed at securing a longer-term goal: restoring the legitimacy of the French police to better expand its powers – and in particular its surveillance capabilities.

Tyranny of technocrats

Macron was unapologetic in his interview. “Yes”, he claimed, “there are violent police officers”. But he refuted what he called the “concept” of “police violence”, one that he said needed to be “deconstructed”. According to the president, systemic police violence is but “a slogan” brandished by those keen on “weakening the state,” a kind of conspiracy theory fuelled by extremists. “The black blocs, a part of the far-left that wants the state to be dissolved”, Macron went on to explain, “have installed the idea that there is a violence that is inherent to the police”. “Just as others say that there is inherent racism. I am against this. It’s not true”, the president contended.

Never mind that a survey found 80% of those who fit the profile of “young man perceived as black or Arab” have been subject to identity checks in the last five years — compared with a mere 16% of other respondents — or that NGOs have shown over and over again that French authorities systematically violate the fundamental rights of migrant people. Never mind that, two years ago, during the first six months of the Yellow Vests movement, 289 people suffered head injuries and 24 lost an eye, while five others had their hands blown off due to France’s notoriously confrontational protest policing tactics. Macron buried his head in the sand, only vaguely hinting at the need to boost efforts to “prevent, train, and above all sanction”, to ward off what he described as individual cases of abuse. To that end, he pledged to launch a round of consultations to reform the police – the so-called “Beauvau de la sécurité” (named after the name of the Parisian square that is home to the Ministry of the Interior).

Five months later, these round-tables are taking place at a regular pace, despite some events postponed due to the COVID pandemic. But rather than the long-overdue critical appraisal of the French police, the whole process is turning into a series of technocratic, high-level meetings between public officials, police unions representatives, industry players, and a couple of oversight agencies. Meanwhile, the citizen groups as well as research collectives — who, in recent years, have played a key role in calling out the violent and racist tactics of the French police — are being kept out of the loop.

Rather than being a bug in the system however, such blatant lack of inclusiveness is an intentional feature. In reality, the Beauvau de la sécurité consultations have nothing to do with the kind of collective brainstorming session paving the way for meaningful police reform that Macron alluded to in his interview. Instead, it is the government’s privileged approach to create consensus among the French police around its long-term plan for the force – one foreshadowed by the Bill on Global Security and presented in great detail in the White Paper on Internal Security released in mid-November 2020.

The fine print

The White Paper makes no less than two hundred recommendations to beef up security policies. In the name of “recreating the conditions for trust between the population and the security forces”, this planning document hints at a massive effort to strengthen the Interior Ministry’s public relations strategy and to create avenues for citizen participation in policing duties. To ensure “coherence between all actors in the security continuum”, it envisions extending the power of the ministry over municipal police forces and granting evermore powers to private security firms. For example, by relaxing rules on frisking, authorising private guards to be armed with “non-lethal” weapons, or outsourcing many acts of day-to-day policing to private security firms. To provide for “the human, material, and technological resources” needed to meet its ambitious goals, the document submits that 1% of the French GDP should be invested in security policies by 2030, which would result in a 30% budget increase over the next decade.

Part of those sums are meant “to take the Ministry of the Interior to the technological frontier”. Here, the White Paper gives a good overview of all the surveillance technologies currently making their way out of the industry’s R&D labs. It calls to experiment with biometric identification not only through facial recognition but also the analysis of voice, and body odor, as well as using AI “to deal with the growing volume of information”. It foresees multiple command-and-control centres fed with Big Data to provide for “the analysis of past data as a tool for retro-control and decision support”, or asks for vastly expanding the use of surveillance drones.

Notably, this goes beyond wishful thinking on the part of the bureaucracy. Rather, many of the White Paper’s proposals are already well  underway. The Bill on Global Security, which will be formally adopted by the French Parliament in the coming days, lays the groundwork for much of the White Paper’s content and represents the first building block of the long-term plan put forward in the document.

For instance, the Bill grants new investigative powers to municipal police forces and private security firms — whose agents are notoriously underqualified — and extends the number of security forces who can legally access video-surveillance footage. It authorises the companies managing social housing to install cameras in their building’s hallways to spy on residents and issue fines, and authorises police to point cameras to the individual cells of prisoners or migrant detainees. What’s more, it legalises the use of surveillance drones after several cases ruled last year by the Conseil d’État (France’s highest administrative court) found that that the French police had been using them illegally in the absence of any detailed legal framework. And the list goes on.

Facial recognition: a hard sell

Surprisingly though, there is one missing item in the Bill on Global Security: facial recognition and other applications of automated video-surveillance. Despite calls by right-wing members of Parliament to amend the Bill with provisions allowing for the use of facial recognition in real-time, Macron’s majority in Parliament refused to do so. Not because of a strong concern for civil liberties but because, since the beginning, they felt using that Bill to legalise facial recognition was politically too risky.

For the past two years, Macron’s government has tried hard to sell this contentious technology to the public. In October 2019, the Minister for Digital Affairs Cédric O explained that “experimenting with facial recognition is necessary for our industry players to make progress”, striking a techno-nationalist vibe keen on promoting the interests of French industry players — from multinational corporations like Idemia or Thales to small start-ups — in the booming global market of facial recognition. The small group of French elites promoting facial recognition and automated video-surveillance have a plan: to take advantage of the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. Emulating the experience of Beijing 2008, Sotchi 2014, and London 2021, they want to turn the event into a real-world demo of the French know-how in techno-policing, securing business opportunities and ensuring the ‘social acceptability’ of these controversial technologies in France and beyond.

To date, however, the development of so-called ‘smart video-surveillance’ has been hampered by the lack of appropriate regulations and the strategic litigation efforts of groups like the Human Rights League and La Quadrature du Net. So far, in order to avoid public backlash, Macron’s government’s preferred strategy has been one of “small steps” – authorising what Cédric O called “limited, controlled and supervised use” that would seem benign enough but would help normalise the public to these technologies. Indeed, this is precisely what the government did last month when it adopted an executive decree authorising RATP — the public transportation operator in Paris — to plug its CCTV network to the video-analytics technologies of a start-up called Datakalab, in order to gather statistics on the number of people wearing masks during their commutes.

Compliance issues

The problem for Mr. O and other promoters of automated video-surveillance is that this low-key legalisation strategy not only bypasses Parliament but also violates several principles enshrined in European privacy rules, and in particular the General Regulation on Data Protection. Hence, if the French surveillance industry is to be ready by 2024, a new legislative framework is urgently needed to secure and expand the rolling-out of new surveillance technologies. Didier Baichère, a member of the majority in Parliament, has set out to do just that by preparing a dedicated legislative proposal focused on facial recognition and the use of AI-powered video-surveillance.

Macron government’s push towards surveillance should come as no surprise. The leak of his 2017 campaign emails on WikiLeaks had already shown his staff was keen on pushing for biometric surveillance. Since the beginning of his term in 2017 — and in particular after the Yellow Vests’ wave of protests — the monitoring of social movements has become a key priority for France’s intelligence agencies, and the share of surveillance measures authorised to spy on activist groups has more than doubled. Add to that, France’s role in advocating for expanded surveillance and censorship of online platforms at the European level, or the ongoing fight between France and the CJEU around data retention, and it should be quite obvious that France’s current administration is a leading representative of the rising wave of authoritarian-liberalism currently sweeping Europe.