'Everyone is afraid of it': France's massive ID database seen as threat to personal freedom

As the anniversary of last year’s Paris attacks approaches, the French government is facing heavy criticism for a massive database it is launching to collect and store the personal information of the country’s 60 million citizens, Michelle Gagnon writes from Paris.

Interior Ministry facing criticism for initiative it says is financially efficient way to fight identity fraud

Police patrols on city streets and the French government's powers of surveillance have increased dramatically since the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015 and the attacks in Paris last November. (Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters)

It's another blow to France's motto, Liberté, égalité, fraternité, and this time it's liberty that's taking the hit.

Exactly two weeks ahead of the Nov. 13 anniversary of last year's Paris attacks, the French government quietly created a massive database that will collect and store the personal information of its 60 million citizens.

The Ministry of the Interior took a sleepy Sunday in the middle of a long weekend to proceed without parliamentary consultation or public debate to publish decree No. 2016-1460, creating TES, short for "Titres électroniques securisés" or secure electronic documents.

"It would seem they wanted to move quickly, avoid debate, make the least noise possible," says Marc Rees, the journalist who broke the story the day after. "If that was their strategy, it's a failure. Everyone's been talking about it all week."

A woman is evacuated from the Bataclan theatre after the attack in Paris on Nov. 13, 2015. (Thibault Camus/AP)

According to the ministry, TES is an administratively and financially efficient way to fight identity fraud.

All personal data from passports and French identity cards is to be merged by October 2018 into one mega file, or "monster file" as its come to be known after Rees dubbed it #FichierMonstre on Twitter.

"It's a monstrously big and scary file," says Rees. "When you look at the fears expressed online, you see that everyone is afraid of it."

Afraid of having their name, address, eye colour, height, email, phone number, civil status, fingerprints and photo all in one electronic biometric file. And afraid of what might be done with it.

The French Pirate Party tweeted "Imagine the #FichierMonstre #TES in the hands of a #Trump. Got it? See? So sign and share!" referring to a petition posted in a followup tweet.

The government assures it is secure and only to be used to confirm people's identity, not to investigate them.

But Rees believes neither of those promises is realistic. 

He cites the Yahoo hack as the latest example of electronic vulnerability and sees even more weakness in the idea that the use of the database will be restrained.

"It's systematic: even if a law is constrained to a specific use, eventually there will be interest in using it to other ends. It's not a question of whether, but of when."

'Our troubled past'

Nothing similar has existed in France since the Vichy regime when census details were used to help deport French Jews. Those documents were destroyed at the end of the Second World War.

"It's the spectre of our troubled past," Rees says. "But it's not the worst of France's surveillance laws."

Only days before the Bataclan reopened on Nov. 12, 2016, commemorative bouquets continued to be left in the guardrails surrounding the nightclub. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

Two other laws passed since the Charlie Hebdo attacks, including the July 2015 Intelligence Act denounced by Amnesty International, have left private lives wide open to the scrutiny of French security and intelligence forces.

"These laws were in the making before Charlie, but there's no doubt the attacks were used as a political springboard. The terrorist threat made it easier to pass all these laws," Rees says. "Question is whether the means are proportional."

We're definitely living in a police state.- Yasser Louati

Civil rights activist Yasser Louati is convinced they're not.

"We're definitely living in a police state," he says calmly, methodically detailing the provocative claim. "This is not some kind of ideological statement. It is the case. Remember: the Intelligence Act was passed last year with an overwhelming majority.

"And this law allows the government to tap your phone conversations, your web browsing, the books you read, the movies you watch, the people you meet, your email account, your social media accounts, your whereabouts by following you on your cellphone. That's not something from a movie. That's the law."

'A long French tradition'

Little about Louati screams defiance. Rather, the black blazer, striped shirt and slim tie betray a past spent as a business jet pilot.

'We make short documentaries with the people we represent where they can speak for themselves because, too often, if not all the time, you hear about them but they're absent,' says Yasser Louati, a civil rights activist who fights Islamophobia in France. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

But two years in Fort Worth, Texas, and another 10 jetting around the Middle East left the native Parisian homesick and craving purpose. In 2011, he moved back to France to pursue his "commitment" and fight Islamophobia.

"There are always classes of people dominating others in France," he says, listing off the victims: the Jews, the Spanish, the Italians. "This is an ongoing struggle, part of our history. So today, Muslims are just part of a long French tradition."

He's in the process of setting up his own organization "to assist victims of Islamophobia and people whose liberty has been attacked," increasingly numerous after the assaults on Paris and Nice.

Several lawyers have offered him their services.

"They've been following me since my 'infamous' CNN interview," he says, referring to his own very public brush with prejudice.

Two days after the Paris attacks, Louati found himself in an argument, broadcast live, about whether France's Muslim community should take responsibility for the attacks.

"They were telling me: 'Since those people are from the Muslim community, how come the Muslim community didn't turn them in to the police?' As if Muslims were, how can I say, some kind of metaphysical community, we communicate with vibrations," he says facetiously.

'People are just fed up'

But targeting French Muslims is a constant since the attacks, he says. 

"Take the state of emergency itself: they raided more than 3,500 homes, Muslim homes, ransacked the mosques, ransacked the businesses, resulting in only six terrorism-related inquiries.

"So what they did then is put any person who seemed suspicious under house arrest. So these laws have definitely put Muslims under the security apparatus."

Louati says French Muslims are now afraid, have lost faith in the state and are beginning to mobilize to become more politically autonomous and, perhaps even, confront the government.

"I will quote Jean-Frédéric Poisson, a candidate in the right-wing primaries: 'This is the last [chance] election,' before deep social troubles happen in France. Because people are just fed up."

Soldiers have been patrolling the streets of the capital since the government enacted the state of emergency following last year's attacks in Paris. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

Louati's conclusions about the government are just as categorical.

"We are not trying to solve the problems of the country, we are trying to maintain the established order. And that established order means we have to pass every single measure possible.

"Of course it's cliché to mention it, George Orwell's 1984, but you maintain continuous control over the population. So TES for me is just going backwards."

'Worked like a charm'

But a week of criticism from watchdog organizations, the media and even a member of the government itself did result in the Interior Ministry backtracking a bit. It has suggested TES be debated in parliament and eventually said that citizens could choose whether their fingerprints go on file.

Rees says the post-facto debate is window dressing. "It's like if I smack someone and then explain why I did it. Too late. The pain has been felt."

To Louati, the sting goes straight to ISIS's stated objective of pitting people against each other.

He stares across the table, almost as if he's back on air with CNN, and says "worked like a charm." 


Michelle Gagnon is a producer for CBC News. She covers domestic and international affairs.


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