France's Socialist government yesterday presented legislation to the French parliament that would make it possible for French police to arrest people who visit combat training camps in countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The new legislation has gained momentum as a result of shootings by an al-Qa'ida inspired gunman, Mohamed Merah, in the southern French city of Toulouse which left three children and a father dead at a Jewish school as well as three French paratroopers and the gunman himself. A number of French police officers were also injured in the incidents.
Whilst the French Socialists may be intent on rolling back much of former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s taxation, labour and pensions reforms, the change in the law concerning ‘terrorism tourists’ looks very similar to a crackdown promised by Sarkozy before he was unseated by current left-wing president François Hollande.
France’s Interior Minister Manuel Valls presented the bill six months after seven people were shot by Mohamed Merah in Toulouse, shootings which shocked France. The 23-year-old was known to French police and intelligence services, having made a number of visits to combat camps. The Independent reports that intelligence services staff had been tagging Merah for years.
The Toulouse killings, which ultimately resulted in Merah dying in a hail of police gunfire at his flat in Toulouse, raised questions about the French police’s inability to tackle the gunman before bloodshed ensued.
If it comes into French law, the new legislation would make it possible for French police to take people into custody for questioning if they are suspected of involvement in terrorism-related activity beyond French borders. At the moment French police can only take action if an offence is suspected to have been committed on French soil.
Claude Gueant, who was interior minister in the previous Sarkozy administration at the time of the Toulouse shootings back in March, defended the police and intelligence services at the time saying they could not arrest a person who had not committed an offence on French territory.
Speaking to Le Pointe, a French political daily, a French intelligence source highlighted the current anomalous situation as regards suspected terrorists, saying, “"We have laws that allow us to take action against paedophiles who may have committed offences abroad, but none to combat apprentice terrorists. Let’s ensure we can take action against them as well as against paedophilia and sex tourism."
The intelligence specialist continued, “As matters stand at the moment, when (those visiting combat camps) have been identified and return to France, we can keep them under surveillance, we can listen in on what they’re up to, but that’s it.” That is precisely what happened in the case of the case of the Toulouse shooter, Mohamed Merah, who had been under surveillance for some time prior to the killings.
According to a French government statement, reports Reuters, "The terrorist threat remains high-level in France. It is essential that we can detect when people, collectively or individually, embark on the road to radicalisation and terrorist violence."
As part of its beefed-up counter-terrorism measure, the French government also intends extending a measure that allows police to access electronic or internet communications of potential terrorists, the French government statement said. Such measures would otherwise have expired at end 2012. The French government intends keeping them in force until the end of 2015 and also canvassed the possibility that they might be extended indefinitely.