Two weeks after Islamist militants killed 17 people in a wave of deadly attacks in and around Paris, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has unveiled a series of measures to contain radicalization and combat terrorism.
Valls announced the counterterrorism measures at a press conference Wednesday, surrounded by several ministers, including interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve, justice minister Christiane Taubira, defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, and foreign affairs minister Laurent Fabius.
Valls revisited some of the measures he outlined during a rousing speech to the French National Assembly last week, including strengthening intelligence services and injecting more cash into the government's anti-terror efforts.
Repeating his previous announcement that the French government would respond to "an exceptional situation with exceptional measures," Valls announced the creation of 2,680 new jobs, and the spending of 425 million euros (nearly $492 million) — separate from the human resources budget — for a variety of national defense measures.
Addressing widespread concern over the implementation of a "French Patriot Act," Valls justified the measures by citing "the change in scale" of the terrorist threat.
"Today, we have to monitor close to 1,300 people — French nationals or foreign nationals living in France — for their involvement in terrorist networks in Syria and Iraq," Valls said. "That's a 130 percent increase from last year."
The prime minister also counted militants currently fighting in Yemen or in Africa's Sahel region.
"All in all, that's 3,000 people we need to monitor," he said. "This change in scale is a tremendous challenge for our country and for our allies — particularly our European partners."
The French government was forced to acknowledge its own intelligence failings following the Paris attacks when reports surfaced that the Kouachi brothers, who carried out the attack on Charlie Hebdo, had been under surveillance for years.
In its January 21 issue, French satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné revealed that Amedy Coulibaly, one of the Paris gunmen, was stopped in a random police check back in December. At the time, Coulibaly came up in the police database, where he was described as "dangerous and belonging to Islamist movements." Despite being notified, the anti-terrorism unit did not pursue the matter.
Politicians and defense experts alike have highlighted the poor coordination between French security services, and insufficient crosschecking of files on suspected terrorists.
'We have to monitor close to 1,300 people — French nationals or foreign nationals living in France — for their involvement in terrorist networks in Syria and Iraq. That's a 130 percent increase from last year.'
Valls also announced that a new anti-terrorism bill would be debated in parliament in early March, pointing out that the current anti-terror law was drafted in 1991, long before the rise of the internet.
The new legislation will propose tighter controls on online jihadist propaganda, and will allow closer monitoring of communication between extremists. Extra resources, such as a "cyber-patrol" will added to take down "illegal" content and monitor social networks used for jihadist recruitment.
In the past two weeks, France's internet-monitoring system, dubbed "Pharos," has flagged more than 30,000 pieces of content — three times more than it usually does.
Valls also unveiled the creation of a database to track the movements of suspected extremists.
To combat the spread of extremism in French jails, prison authorities will recruit 60 new Muslim chaplains to work alongside the existing 182 chaplains. Valls also confirmed the government would expand the Fresnes prison experiment — in which radical inmates are kept isolated from other prisoners — to five more jails.
Valls — who came under fire for using the word "apartheid" to describe a disenfranchised portion of French society during a press conference Tuesday — warned against rushing into any decisions around "the fundamental issues," such as stripping the French citizenship of suspected militants. Members of the far-right National Front party and the opposition UMP party have both called for the denationalization of jihadists with dual citizenship. The prime minister said that such questions would be referred to the French Constitutional Council.
The issue of "national unworthiness" — an offense introduced in the aftermath of World War II to judge French citizens who collaborated with the Nazis — will not be among the measures immediately implemented by the government, despite the wishes of several socialist and conservative politicians. Valls called for a "transpartisan" parliamentary debate about the issue.
The National Front party released a statement by leader Marine Le Pen that accused the prime minister of "veering completely off topic given the seriousness of the situation," and of "spending 30 minutes saying very little." She called for more radical measures, including harsher immigration control and the re-establishing of national borders.
Right-wing UMP party member Eric Ciotti, who also leads the commission of inquiry on monitoring individuals believed to have jihadist affiliations, applauded the measures, but regretted that denationalization was not on the agenda. "It's in line with what has been said and with the national unity demonstrated by all," Ciotti said. "I am disappointed about the symbolic aspect of the response, particularly in relation to issues of denationalization or national unworthiness."
Green party politician François de Rugy said he agreed "with the government's pragmatic approach," but warned against "[partisan] competition and legislative posturing." De Rugy called for "caution when it comes to national unworthiness and denationalization, because those are symbols that won't deter perpetrators." He also advocated for longer-term, non-legislative measures.
French President François Hollande led a defense council meeting Wednesday afternoon at the presidential Elysée palace, and announced the government would cut 7,500 fewer defense jobs than previously planned in a move to boost France's security infrastructure.
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