France’s ‘1984’?

New Laws Pushed by Nicolas Sarkozy After Toulouse Massacre Go Too Far

The French president’s desired laws to criminalize travel for terrorist indoctrination and consulting jihadist websites would be disastrous, says Barry Lando.

There are those who maintain that George W. Bush’s reaction to the horrors of 9/11—the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the ballooning of the Homeland Security apparatus, the authorization of domestic electronic surveillance, the establishment of Guantanamo, and the like, was far more damaging to the fabric and economy of the United States than the precipitating, awful destruction of the World Trade Center itself.

Now, in the wake of the horrific events in Toulouse, one senses the same thrust towards overreaction from French President Nicolas Sarkozy. This despite the fact that the young perpetrator of the terrorist atrocities was little more than a 23-year-old punk, a part-time garage mechanic probably operating almost totally on his own, with no serious links to al Qaeda.

During the past terrifying days, as the French looked on in dismay, Sarkozy was the very model of a model French president, expressing outrage at the savage series of killings, but handling the crisis with almost regal aplomb, calling for national unity, a temporary halt to presidential campaigning, and assuring his aghast countrymen that the killer would be quickly found and dealt with.

But once the crisis had ended and Mohamed Merah had been gunned down, the old Sarkozy—known also for erratic outbursts and a tendency to fire from the hip –was unleashed.

He announced his intention to present legislation to Parliament that would make it a crime for people to travel abroad for terrorist indoctrination or to consult jihadist websites. Even though the horrors of Toulouse are still endlessly reprised on the country’s TV screens, Sarkozy’s proposals have already drawn fire from a wide range of critics.

Take, for instance the proposed law against traveling for “terrorist indoctrination.”

What is he targeting? Full-blown al Qaeda training camps, of course, with all the terrorist bells and whistles. But what about an international Salafist conference, as recently held in Spain? A vociferous gathering in support of Tibetan independence? To raise money for the cause of Chechnyan freedom? Arms for the rebels in Syria? To break the embargo of Palestine? Or back the uprising in Libya, a battle, ironically, where Sarkozy’s France led the charge.

In fact, according to Bernard Squarcini, who heads the Central Directorate of Domestic Intelligence, and who was interviewed by Le Monde, local French authorities had no need to resort to such a law when they called Merah in for questioning last November, after learning of his most recent trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

He showed up voluntarily. His trips, he maintained, were innocent, just tourism—he displayed photos to prove his case. In any case, the beardless young man, who enjoyed fast cars, women, alcohol, and hashish, with no known links to any terrorist cell—was not at all the profile of a rabid jihadist. After questioning, they let him go, though keeping his name on a local “watch list.”

(Later, while talking with police negotiators during the long siege in Toulouse, Merah claimed he had received some one-on-one training: in the tribal areas of Pakistan.)

But the Sarkozy proposal that has drawn most fire is the threat of criminal action against “any person who regularly consults Internet sites that praise terrorism, or are linked to calls to hate or violence.”

In fact, unlike the U.S., France already has laws against the promotion of racial hatred, even a prohibition against those who would deny the Holocaust.

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But, again, how would Sarkozy define the much broader class of Internet sites he is now targeting? What is preaching hate or violence? Against which people? Jews? Salafists? Shiites? Coptic Christians? Against which power? Assad in Syria? The Communist regime in China? Against Sarkozy, to protest his proposed legislation?

What is “regularly consulting”? Once a day? Once a week? What about reporters or students who want to view jihadist sites for professional reasons, or out of pure curiosity? After all, any militant using such sites for truly nefarious purposes could easily disguise his Internet identity.

Apart from that, such surveillance also would necessitate a new, menacing bureaucracy, its basic purpose to monitor Internet communications. Presumably, major carriers such as Google, You Tube and Facebook would be compelled to collaborate with that new effort.

But what riles Sarkozy’s current critics the most, is that his threatened prohibition against “regularly consulting certain Internet sites” runs completely counter to jurisprudence in France, as well as international conventions on human rights. These all uphold a fundamental doctrine: that no one should suffer because of his beliefs, nor religious convictions, as long as they don’t disrupt established public order.

By proposing to punish people not for any violent action, but for simply being interested in someone else’s views on the Internet —no matter how extreme or hateful—Sarkozy would, in effect be creating what amounts to Thought Crime, as chillingly depicted in George Orwell’s 1984.

The new measure, if enacted, would place France in the same boat as China and Saudi Arabia—or France under the Nazi occupation, when it was a crime to listen to the BBC.

There is an irony, in light of this furor, in something else that Merah confided to the police negotiators: What first provoked his outrage against France was not any rabid jihadist site, or Salafist meetings, or TV coverage of Israel’s bloody raid into Gaza, but the fact that he had been sentenced to 18 months in prison. His crime: Driving without a license. (The sentence had been toughened because as a juvenile he had committed a long string of petty crimes.) Another avowal: He had not originally planned to assault that Jewish school in Toulouse. He only decided to go there on the morning of the attack, after his plans to kill another French soldier fell through.

The rest is history.

So, how to explain Sarkozy’s latest gambit? One hopes it’s a temporary political ploy, designed to gain votes and outflank the right in an election campaign that Sarkozy had been losing—till now.

If he wins reelection, he can always find a way to back off his draconian proposals.

It would be disastrous for France if he were serious.