Government surveillance, trade, immigration: a view from France

Government surveillance and immigration are very contentious issues opposing Silicon Valley and Washington DC. Speaking to a few journalists, including Decoding Europe, at the French Café de la Presse in San Francisco on May 1, French Ambassador to the US Gérard Araud explained how they are dealt with in France. He also briefly addressed the European reactions to the EU-US trade negotiations, another controversial issue on the Hill.

Relatively new in his position – Mr. Araud was Ambassador to the UN in New York City until September 2014 – this was the Ambassador’s first visit to Silicon Valley. As he described it, he was on a mission to recruit support from local authorities, including San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and the business community, for COP21, the UN climate conference that France organizes in Paris in September 2015. He also took the opportunity to answers questions about a wide range of issues of relevance to the tech sector – these are my notes on his statements around the three hottest topics on the table.

Government surveillance

We are not using a net for fishing. We are using a harpoon.”

Fishing implements were not part of the conversation. Mr. Araud was referring to one of the main differences in the approach to government surveillance between the US and France.

By way of context, Mr. Araud explained that “in the US, you had the trauma of 9/11.” The attacks resulted in the adoption of the Patriot Act, shifting the US legal framework towards security and government surveillance to the detriment of people’s privacy. “We had none of that in Europe, we did not have that trauma.” That’s why “the Snowden Affair was a shock”, followed by the recent revelations that Germany was spying on its fellow European countries.

Demonstration in San Francisco in support of France after the attacks against Charlie Hebdo, January 11, 2015 (photo: Soutien #JeSuisCharlie devant le City Hall a San Francisco by Florent LamoureuxCC BY-NC 2.0)

In France, the recent terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo has led the French government to push for the adoption of a government surveillance bill. This widely criticized piece of legislation (see reporting by the New York Times) was adopted on June 9 by the French Parliament. Mr. Araud acknowledged that the text will “shift the balance back towards law enforcement.” However, that is where the similarities between the US and the French approaches end.

According to Mr. Araud, whereas the US favors the wholesale collection of personal data by the NSA (comparing the practice to a fishnet), surveillance in France will be limited to targeted data and based on a court order (hence the harpoon).

French privacy rules are strict. For instance, the rules that permit the use of wiretapping are very stringent. A wiretap has to be allowed by an independent committee that can decide to stop the practice if it does not yield results. Mr. Araud revealed that the authors of the Charlie Hebdo attack, the Kouachi brothers, had been tapped for two years with no results. Upon request of the committee, the wiretap was removed. Six months later, the attacks took place.

Following the event, the French government reinforced its collaboration with internet service providers to fight terrorism and take down terrorists’ propaganda from social networks. In the US, the Snowden affair weakened the relationship between Silicon Valley and the Obama Administration. In France, after meeting the government and initially opposing the initiative, US internet companies started cooperating. “Google in particular is very cooperative; Twitter is more reticent,” said Mr. Araud.

Giving public authorities extended powers to collect data is also back on the agenda in the UK. Under a planned bill, security services will be allowed to conduct bulk collection of communication data, including social media and web use. According to the Guardian, “Ministers promise to provide for ‘appropriate oversight arrangements and safeguards’”, but no details have yet been provided in that regard.

Recent developments risk making Ambassador Araud’s analogy quickly outdated. While Europe starts upon the path of heavy-handed security measures, the US is reforming its legal framework. Congress failed to renew the NSA mandate allowing the much-criticized bulk collection of data under the Patriot Act on May 31 and President Obama signed the USA Freedom Act on June 2.

This new law represents a more targeted approach, ending the bulk collection and storage of data and introducing transparency measures. This notwithstanding, data generated by non-US nationals is not protected by these limitations. Also, attempts by the tech industry to introduce a ban on government-accessible backdoors were defeated.


The reaction to TTIP in Europe is very irrational”

Moving on to trade, Mr. Araud provided a rare outlook on the debate surrounding the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreement, also known as TTIP.

Commenting on the current political climate in Washington DC, the Ambassador predicted that the TTIP negotiations won’t conclude before the end of President Obama’s mandate in 2016. The White House has to get the Pacific trade agreement, TPP, through Congress first. However, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats are ready to give this success to President Obama, which will further delay the TTIP process.

In Europe, the debate has turned “irrational”, said Mr. Araud, especially in Germany. The issue is not with tariffs or quotas, that have almost disappeared anyway, but with GMOs, antibiotics, chlorine bleach chicken and geographic indications. Public procurement is another contentious issue. Although Europe is ready to open up to US companies, the reverse won’t happen.

Germany also opposes the proposed investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) process that would take control away from the German judicial system. Socialists across the continent have also expressed disagreement with ISDS. The stakes are high though, as successfully introducing ISDS in TTIP would set a precedent and open the door for negotiations with China and Russia on similar matters.

The US Congress and the European Parliament are both due to approve negotiation mandates for their respective executive arms very soon and are both showing little enthusiasm at this stage.


Immigrants are the scapegoats of Europe’s identity, economic and demographic crisis”

Moving on to the way immigrants are handled in Europe, Mr. Araud’s view is that they are being treated as “scapegoats” for Europe’s problems. The Ambassador explained that this is a reflection of Europe’s ongoing crisis and of a “general shift to the right of the political spectrum.” “Our civilization is not used to integrating other cultures.” Demographically, though, countries like Germany need immigration, he continued, and should therefore face the facts.

Mr. Araud also stressed the challenges preventing a long-lasting constructive dialogue with the local Muslim community, including the lack of a Muslim clergy, the dearth of imams trained and raised in France and the approval process required to build mosques.

Following the arrival of thousands of migrants and the deaths of several of them on the beaches of Italy and Greece in the last few months, the European Union is now trying to find a solution to harbor increasing numbers of asylum seekers. The European Commission has led discussions on a quota system which France quickly rejected.

Meanwhile, in the US, President Obama’s executive order on immigration just took effect in May. If this order is implemented in spite of mounting opposition on several fronts, it will enable millions of immigrants to stay and work legally in the US.