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France moves to tighten security at the expense of freedom

New law extends powers to conduct warrantless searches and block websites in wake of Paris attacks

David Ramos/Getty Images

French authorities are still working to piece together the events and oversights that led to last week's terrorist attacks in Paris, which left 129 dead and 352 injured. But lawmakers are already looking to prevent future attacks with a familiar recipe: tougher security measures and curtailed civil liberties.

On Thursday, France's lower house of parliament nearly unanimously voted to extend the country's current state of emergency by three months. The state of emergency grants expanded powers to French security forces, including the ability to immediately place suspects under house arrest, conduct warrantless searches, and copy data from suspects' phones and computers. Lawmakers also passed an amendment that makes it easier for the government to unilaterally shut down any websites or social media accounts that "encourage" terrorism. The Senate will vote on the law Friday, and it is expected to pass.

In an address to the National Assembly Thursday, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the extension would allow the government to stop "dangerous proven activities" and "threats stemming from serious suspicions." Since the state of emergency was declared on Saturday, authorities have carried out more than 400 raids without judicial authorization, and 118 suspects have been placed under house arrest.

"France has been attacked."

"France has been attacked," Valls said. "French people are under shock. They are expecting from all of us some strong, quick and effective reactions."

But civil rights advocates fear that the government's rush to tighten security may come at the expense of constitutionally protected liberties. "Governments have a right and a duty to protect their citizens from violence, so it's absolutely paramount that governments like France take action to protect citizens," says Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty International's deputy director for Europe and Central Asia. "But the problem is that as soon as you start to erode the rights that you're trying to protect in the first place, you're undermining that security." She says Amnesty is particularly worried that the government's expanded powers may disproportionately affect minority groups, including French Muslims. (France is home to Europe's largest Muslim population.)

"We do need to make sure that any fight for security and protection of citizens is linked to a protection of their rights," van Gulik adds.

But that may be a tough argument to make when the memories of Friday's terrorist attacks are still fresh. In a recent poll from the French newspaper Le Figaro and radio network RTL, 84 percent of respondents said they were willing to accept curtailed civil liberties in exchange for greater security.

In some ways, they already have. Following the deadly attacks on the offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket earlier this year, lawmakers introduced controversial legislation that significantly expanded the state's surveillance powers. The legislation, which has been likened to a "French Patriot Act," allows the government to monitor communications of suspected terrorists without prior authorization from a judge. It also obliges internet service providers to install "black boxes" that collect metadata on millions of web users, and to share that information with French intelligence.

"They're acting on the same knee-jerk impulses."

In the US and UK, some have used last week's attacks to argue for broader surveillance and bulk data gathering. There is as yet no proposal to expand the system in France, though President François Hollande this week said he would consider it in consultation with the courts. In the same address, Hollande called for constitutional amendments that would broaden the powers outlined under France's state of emergency laws, including one that would enable authorities to strip convicted citizens with dual-citizenship of their French nationality.

In an interview with CNN this week, a spokeswoman for the ruling Socialist Party acknowledged intelligence failures leading up to Friday's attacks, adding that the country's new surveillance system is not yet fully operational. Several of the suspected terrorists involved in the attack, including the alleged architect of the plan, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, were on the radar of French authorities. But the spokeswoman said there was a breakdown in intelligence sharing with Belgium, where the jihadists plotted their massacre.

It's unclear whether France will look to expand its surveillance apparatus in the coming weeks and months, though there are already concerns over its crackdown on jihadist websites and social media accounts. The government is already authorized to block sites that incite terrorism, under a law passed in November 2014, but the law obligated authorities to contact site operators beforehand and to give ISPs 24 hours to carry out ordered shutdowns. The amendment passed this week would allow the state to block sites immediately, and free speech advocates say that would set a dangerous precedent.

"I'm concerned that France's creeping censorship is both potentially harmful — in that it's undemocratic and could silence other speech — and counterproductive," says Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). "ISIS wants a society where only one point of view is accepted; when the state takes more power over our speech, they're acting on the same knee-jerk impulses."