French authorities on Monday seized the passports of six people suspected of trying to join Islamist groups fighting in Syria and Iraq, the first such confiscation under a measure adopted in November as part of a new, stricter, counterterrorism law.
The three men and three women — aged between 23 and 28 — have seen their passports and identity cards confiscated for at least six months, renewable for up to two years. The ban can be appealed before an administrative court. Forty more confiscations are already being prepared, according to the French interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve who spoke to the press on Monday.
According to a source quoted by French news agency AFP, the six French nationals from the Provence and Rhône-Alpes regions were planning to go to Syria "imminently." French radio station RTL revealed that the suspects were identified by authorities either because their relatives notified the police through a new toll-free hotline, or as a result of investigations led by the General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI).
"If French citizens leave to commit atrocities in Iraq and in Syria, when they return, they represent an even bigger danger for the national territory and they are likely to commit terrorist acts on a major scale," Cazeneuve said during a meeting with the press at the ministry on Monday.
AFP's source also revealed that several of the suspects had already made trips to Syria and returned.
France ranks first among Western countries in the number of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria. 1,400 French nationals or residents have either joined the jihadist group in the Levant or are planning to do so. 410 people are already on site, 260 are back in France and 80 were killed, according to Manuel Valls, the French prime minister.
"There will be more [confiscations of passports]," Valls pledged on Monday as he was touring the International Agricultural Show in Paris.
The ban on departures for would-be jihadis was one of the most hotly debated measures in the new counterterrorism law. The suspects now have two months to appeal the decision. If they now find a way to leave the country — for example overland into other European Union countries, which does not require a passport — they will incur a maximum sentence of three years' imprisonment and a 45,000 euro ($50,000) fine.
The names of the six French suspects have been communicated to the Schengen information system, a database used by European border posts — though it is possible to cross frontiers within the EU Schengen area without stopping for checks. They will also be closely monitored by French intelligence services, who will request they present themselves in person regularly.
France is not the only country to confiscate passports. British authorities have implemented an initiative similar to the French law. Police can seize passports up to 30 days and can prevent an individual from returning to the UK if they are suspected to be involved with the Islamic State. The British law also allows forfeiture of nationality, as does Dutch counter-terrorism legislation..
In Germany, only passports can be seized, not national identity cards, which can be used to travel inside the EU and to Turkey — the main gateway to Syria and into Islamist groups. Canadian authorities can confiscate identity cards and remove citizenship from dual nationals suspected to be involved in a terrorist organization.
French authorities need to demonstrate "serious reasons to believe" that the person "planned to travel abroad in order to participate in terrorist activities" or a terror group's "'theater of operations," according to a source close to the matter quoted by AFP.
A police specialist in intelligence explained that the people targeted by passport confiscations are not "in theory" subject to legal proceedings. "We are on the brink of judicialization. We don't have enough evidence to prosecute them, but just enough to consider they might become a threat," the specialist told the agency.
Quoted by The New-York Times, Agnès Tricoire, a lawyer and representative for the French League of Human Rights, explained "This is clearly a violation of a fundamental right which is the liberty of free movement. "
"One of the issues is what are they going to do if they can't leave," Tricoire said.
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray
Main image: Hayat Boumeddiene, the wanted partner of Paris gunman Amedy Coulibaly, arriving at Istanbul airport on January 2. She is now believed to have joined the Islamic State in Syria.