The French government has cut the social welfare benefits of nearly 300 jihadists who have left France to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Amid a rapidly expanding jihadist threat, it has also started confiscating passports, imposing travel bans and blocking access to jihadist websites.
The moves are part of a raft of new anti-terrorism measures aimed at preventing French citizens or residents from joining jihadist groups abroad, and at slowing the spread of radical Islam at home. Muslim groups are criticizing the flurry of activity as "Islamophobia."
On March 17, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve revealed that the government has stopped paying welfare benefits to 290 French jihadists fighting with the Islamic State. He said that the agencies responsible for distributing welfare payments were being notified as soon as it was confirmed that a French citizen had left the country to fight abroad.
At least 1,200 French nationals or residents are believed to have joined the Islamic State, but Cazeneuve did not say whether any of those were receiving benefits. "We should not make a controversy out of this subject or allow people to think that no action has been taken," he said. "We are taking this seriously and will continue to do so."
The debate over benefits payments to jihadists erupted in November 2014, when Eric Ciotti, the president of Alpes-Maritimes, a department in southeastern France, suspended the payment of a welfare benefit known as the RSA to a French jihadist fighting in Syria. "I cannot conceive that public money goes into the pockets of someone who harbors terrorist designs against our nation, against its vital interests and against democracy, and that money is being used to fund jihad," Ciotti said at the time.
Meanwhile, for the first time ever, French authorities on February 23 confiscated the passports and identity cards of six French citizens who were allegedly planning to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State. The government said it might seize the passports of at least 40 other French citizens.
On March 16, the Interior Ministry also blocked five Islamist websites that, it said, were promoting terrorism. The sites included one belonging to al-Hayat Media Center, the propaganda wing of the Islamic State.
The actions were carried out in accordance with new rules that grant French authorities the power to block websites that "glorify terrorism," and to impose entry and exit bans on individuals "whenever there are serious reasons to believe that they are planning to travel abroad... to take part in terrorist activities, war crimes or crimes against humanity." The new powers have been controversial because they can be implemented without judicial approval.
Cazeneuve said that the websites were blocked to prevent people from "taking up arms" on the Internet. "I make a distinction between freedom of expression and the spread of messages that serve to glorify terrorism," he said. "These hate messages are a crime," he added. Cazeneuve said his ministry was targeting "dozens" of other jihadist websites.
But the Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe, Nils Muižnieks, criticized the move because it was carried out without judicial oversight. "Limiting human rights to fight against terrorism is a serious mistake and an inefficient measure that can even help the terrorists' cause," he said.
Muižnieks added that he was "worried" about the "exclusively security-driven approach" shaping French counter-terrorism legislation, and warned that if adopted, "this legislation could have the effect of killing freedom and creating a dangerous social climate in which all individuals are considered potential suspects."
Muižnieks was referring to a new bill that was unveiled by Prime Minister Manuel Valls on March 19, which would allow intelligence services to monitor and collect the email and telephone communications of anyone suspected of being a terrorist. The bill will be debated in the French parliament in April and is expected to be approved in July.
Among other features, the new law would force Internet service providers and telephone companies to allow intelligence services to record metadata, which could be stored for up to five years and would be analyzed for potentially suspicious behavior. If intelligence agents detect anything suspicious, they could ask an independent nine-person panel for permission to conduct more intense surveillance.
Amnesty International said the law would pave the way for intrusive surveillance practices with no judicial pre-authorization. In a statement, the group said:
"The surveillance practices envisaged in the draft legislation would give the French authorities extremely broad surveillance powers running against fundamental principles of proportionality and legality, which ought to govern all restrictions on the right to privacy and free speech."
Valls defended the bill. "These are legal tools, but not tools of exception, nor of generalized surveillance of citizens," he said at a press conference. "There will not be a French Patriot Act," he said, referring to American legislation bearing the same name. "There cannot be a lawless zone in the digital space. Often we cannot predict the threat, the services must have the power to react quickly."
The majority of French citizens seem to agree. An Ipsos survey for Radio Europe 1 and the French daily Le Monde on January 28 showed that 71% of people were in favor of general surveillance without the need to get a warrant from a judge.
Other counter-terrorism initiatives include:
On March 3, Valls announced that the state would double the number of university courses on Islam in an effort to stop foreign governments from financing and influencing the training of French imams. Valls said that he wanted more imams and prison chaplains who have been trained abroad to "undergo more training in France, to speak French fluently and to understand the concept of secularism." There are currently six universities in France offering courses in Islamic studies and theology. Valls said he wanted to double that number to 12 and that the courses would be free.
On February 25, Cazeneuve unveiled a plan to "reform" the Muslim faith in order to bring it into line with the "values of the French Republic." This would be done by means of a new "Islamic Foundation" devoted to conducting "revitalizing research" into a form of Islam that "carries the message of peace, tolerance and respect." Among other measures, the government would create a new forum to: promote dialogue with the Muslim community; improve the training of Muslim preachers; combat radicalization in French prisons; and regulate Muslim schools.
On January 21, Valls announced a 736 million euro ($835 million) program to augment its anti-terrorism defenses. He said the government would hire and train 2,680 new anti-terrorist judges, security agents, police officers, electronic eavesdroppers and analysts over the next three years. The government will also spend 480 million euros on new weapons and protective gear for police. The initiative includes an enhanced online presence based on a new government website called "Stop Djihadisme."
Valls recently warned that as many as 10,000 Europeans could be waging jihad in Iraq and Syria by the end of 2015. "There are 3,000 Europeans in Iraq and Syria today," he said. "When you do a projection for the months to come, there could be 5,000 before summer and 10,000 before the end of the year. Do you realize the threat that this represents?"
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.