French PM explaining the intelligence bill at the National Assembly
30 June 2015

Parliament adopts the intelligence bill

The intelligence bill was definitively adopted by Parliament on 24 June. For the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, the President of the Republic asked the Constitutional Council to give the greatest possible guarantee that the text complied with Basic Law.

Content published under the Government Valls II from 2014 26th August to 2016 11th February
France was one of the last Western democracies not to have a comprehensive and consistent legal framework to govern the activities of its intelligence services. In July 2014, the President of the Republic and the Government decided to fill this gap with a special Act. The attacks in France in January 2015 and the intensity of the terrorist threat highlighted the importance and urgency of this response. The definitive text of the bill has now been adopted by Parliament. The text, drafted after painstaking reflection and amended since it was presented to the Council of Ministers in March, governs the activity of intelligence services and gives them the resources to fight terrorism effectively whilst protecting fundamental freedoms.
Furthermore, reflecting the commitment he gave in April, the President of the Republic approached the Constitutional Council to establish whether the provisions of the Act strike a sufficient balance between safeguarding the nation's fundamental interests and protecting constitutionally guaranteed rights, in particular the right to privacy. The Head of State therefore asked the Constitutional Council to examine the general framework for using and monitoring intelligence technologies provided for by the Act, and the conditions under which it authorises the use of new technologies.

The main provisions of the Act

  • The principle of secrecy of correspondence is maintained. The Act authorises the automatic analysis of connection data with the sole aim of detecting online patterns of behaviour typically displayed by terrorists. User anonymity will be preserved and the content of messages will not be monitored. Only telephone conversations involving individuals designated by name will be intercepted, including those made using an 'IMSI-catcher' device. Their number will remain limited and the principle of prior individual consent will apply to the interception of international communications sent or received in France. Citizens believing themselves to be under illegal surveillance will be able to refer the matter to the Council of State, and a judge may not be prevented from discovering the purposes of surveillance on the grounds of national defence secrecy.
  • Technical systems will be put in place in conjunction with telecommunications operators by a department reporting to the Prime Minister under the control of the National Commission for the Control of Intelligence Techniques (CNCTR - Commission nationale de contrôle des techniques de renseignement), an independent administrative authority which will comprise magistrates, parliamentarians and an engineer specialising in IT and digital technology. Except in rare emergency situations, it will always issue a prior opinion and have oversight during and after implementation of the intelligence technology. It will also have the power to refer a matter to the Council of State.
  • The very broad concept of 'national security' is clarified: by identifying the purposes of surveillance measures, the Act specifies when they can and cannot be used. The monitoring of political parties, trade unions and peaceful protest movements is therefore clearly prohibited. France has set itself apart from its neighbours, who have adopted far broader concepts. The bill is even more specific than the European Convention on Human Rights, which states that intrusion into privacy might be necessary "in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others". Given their missions and the secrecy that must surround some of their activity, certain professions will benefit from additional guarantees. These will include lawyers, journalists, magistrates and parliamentarians. The Commission's opinion will be compulsory and delivered by a full bench, and the confidentiality needed to work in these areas will be maintained. However, in order to prevent individuals using these professions to conceal their activities, no absolute ban on using intelligence techniques to investigate them can be imposed.

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