Is France really planning to create police files on political activists?

Changes to France's system of creating police files on potential threats to national security have sparked concern - here is what is happening.

Is France really planning to create police files on political activists?
What is contained in the changes to France's security dossier system? Photo: AFP

What is the change?

The controversy centres on three decrees published by the Interior Ministry concerning the way that police compile files on people who are believed to be a threat to national security.

Specifically, they broaden the type of information that can be recorded on certain types of police file – previously this was limited to a person's activities, now it can include their online and social media activity, as well as more personal information like their political and religious beliefs and membership of organisations including trade unions.

Concerns about mental health can also be recorded on the file.

The three decrees published contain the same changes, but for three different types of file – Pasp security files collected by the national police, Gipasp security files collected by gendarmes and EASP which are the files collated on civil servants before appointment to sensitive roles.

How does France's security dossier system work?

France has a national database called the Fichier des Personnes Recherchées (FPR), which is a database of wanted criminals or people on watchlists that was created in 1969.

This database also contains details of escaped prisoners, people who have escaped from institutions or people barred from entering the country.

The most well-known part of the system is the Fiche S security dossiers – where the letter S stands for 'state security' – and there are different types of Fiches S, with numbers going from S1 to S16.

Around 70 percent of Fiches S are made by the DGSI, the national intelligence service.

The term is most commonly used in relation to terror suspects, but Fiche S is not only for suspected terrorists – football hooligans can also have a Fiches S or radical environmental activists, even if they are non-violent.

In October 2020, the French interior ministry said there were 22,000 people with a Fiche S, of which 8,000 were for radicalisation.

The security dossiers are so well known that they have entered everyday language, with people who are the subject of the files known as fiché S, for example Le terroriste arrêté est fiché S depuis quelques années (The arrested terrorist had been on a watchlist for several years).

Who do the changes refer to?

The expanded information gathering does not cover everyone within the system, only those judged “likely to harm the fundamental interests of the Nation”, “the integrity of the Nation or the institutions of the Republic” or to constitute a “terrorist threat”.

Critics say the first two definitions are too vague and could lead to increased data collection on people engaged in lawful and peaceful opposition to the government.

Who is worried?

Several trade unions, a professional body representing lawyers and Amnesty have all raised concerns about the changes.

Their concerns are twofold; first that the definition of people constituting a threat is too vague and second that the dossiers are moving away from recording activities into opinions, health data and perfectly legitimate activities like membership of a trade union.


Anne-Sophie Simpère, Amnesty France's Advocacy Officer, wrote: “Previously, political, philosophical, religious or trade union activities could be recorded. Now, opinions are enough.” 

The CGT, FO and FSU unions and the left-leaning lawyers' and magistrates' unions Syndicat de la magistrature and Syndicat des avocats de France have denounced “the spectre of Big Brother in 2021” in an appeal they filed before the Conseil d'Etat.

What happens next 

The decrees were published in the Journal officiel at the beginning of December and were challenged by unions before France's Conseil d'Etat (State Council) which scrutinises new legislation and acts as an arbitrator in disputes between the government and members of the public.

READ ALSO EXPLAINED What is France's State Council?

After reviewing the decrees, the Council on Monday ruled in the government's favour, saying that the decrees do not disproportionately infringe on freedom of opinion, conscience and religion or trade union freedom.

Are there any safeguards in the system?

Yes, there is an independent body which oversees the files, the Commission nationale de l'informatique et des libertés (Cnil).

Cnil provides oversight on how the information is used. A Fiche S can only be kept for two years before it must be reviewed and if necessary renewed – if during that time the person has kept a low profile the file is destroyed.

Cnil has gives its approval to the new decrees, although it requested clarification on the definitions of people defined as a threat.



Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


OPINION: Macron’s pension reform is wildly unpopular and badly timed – but essential for France

One thing that everyone can agree on is that Emmanuel Macron's new pension reforms are likely to be highly unpopular and lead to strikes and demonstrations - so why is he doing it? John Lichfield looks at the president's thinking and why France, in fact, needs this reform.

OPINION: Macron's pension reform is wildly unpopular and badly timed - but essential for France

The Belgians do it until they are 65. The Germans keep going until they are 65 and 7 months. The British manage it until they are 66. But the French – in theory – stop at 62 (and French train drivers give up much younger than that).

We are talking, of course, of work and the minimum legal age at which European countries can retire on a full state pension.  

President Emmanuel Macron is about to declare war on the French people. He thinks that they should work longer. An overwhelming majority of French people – at least 70 percent according to recent polls – believe that they should not.

President Macron decided on Wednesday night to push ahead rapidly with a new version of the pension reform which was abandoned (when close to enactment) in March 2020 because of the Covid pandemic.

Militant trades unions have – by coincidence – organised over 200 demonstrations across the country today to protest against several things, including Macron’s desire to delay the retirement age. That is just a taste of the mayhem to come.

Remember the long rail and power worker strikes of 2019? Or the protests of 1995 which almost brought France to its knees? They were both about pension reform.

You can hear John talking more about pension reform in the latest episode of Talking France – download it HERE, find it on Spotify, Apple or Google podcasts or listen on the link below.

After a meeting with senior ministers and leaders of his centrist alliance, Macron has, for now, put aside the idea of imposing pension reform by Christmas by parliamentary putsch. He will allow two months for discussions on detail – but no negotiation on fundamentals – with the unions.

 A draft law to increase gradually the minimum retirement age to 65, or maybe 64, will be presented in December and pushed through by February. The 2023 budget plan published this week assumes that the first stage in delayed retirement will take effect from July.

Macron no longer has a majority in the national assembly to be sure of enacting pension reform by normal vote. He let it be known today that the government will use, if necessary, its powers under Article 49.3 of the constitution. This allows the government to pass one piece of general legislation by decree in each annual session (and an unlimited amount of financial legislation).

READ ALSO What is Article 49.3? 

Opposition members could block a new pensions law by supporting a vote of no confidence (as is their constitutional right). In that case, Macron warned today, he will dissolve the assembly and force new parliamentary elections (as is his constitutional right).

In other words, Macron is ready to play hard ball.

But does it make sense to play hard ball in such hard times?

My favourite French left-wing politician, François Ruffin, the deputy for the Somme (who is sometime annoying but often practical and sensible) describes Macron’s approach as “an act of madness”.

Ruffin said: “After two years of the Covid crisis, with people exhausted, with Emmanuel Macron re-elected without any momentum or enthusiasm, when people don’t know whether they can pay their bills…in this time of exasperation and democracy fatigue, he is going to defy the vast majority of French people – 70 percent to 80 percent according to the polls – and impose pension reform by force.”

So why is Macron doing it? And why now? The first question is easier to answer than the second.

There are two strong arguments for pension reform in France.

As people live longer, a supposedly self-financing system will start to run into deficit next year. According to the official projections, short-falls as high as €10 billion by 2027 and €20 billion by 2032 will have to be paid out of  taxation or state borrowing.

In other words the pension system – in which pensions are supposedly paid from workers’ and bosses’ contributions – will start to limit other spending or swell the French deficit and debt.

Secondly, there is a strong, economic argument that France should work for longer. It is unsustainable for the French to retire three years (at least) earlier than their European partners and competitors.  

France is not a “lazy” country. Those French people who do work do so very productively.  But, taken as a whole, France works less hours than other nations – partly because of the 35 hour week, partly through unemployment but mostly because of the early minimum retirement age.

According to a OECD study, France worked 630 hours a year per inhabitant in 2018, including children and the retired. Germany worked 722 hours per inhabitant; the UK 808 hours, and the USA 826. 

Macron argues that France can only afford its generous social model and can only compete successfully with its European partners and global rivals if – as a nation – if it puts in more hours.

Both these arguments are admittedly open to challenge. The state pension fund deficit is not as big as was once feared. There is actually a surplus this year because so many old people died during the Covid pandemic. In the long run, however, the deficits will grow.

The economic argument can also be quibbled with. Many French people already work beyond 62; many other older people would like to work but can’t find jobs.

In the medium to long term, however, the arguments for pension reform are as powerful as Macron says. But that leaves the question: “why now?” 

Does not France, and the world, have problems enough this winter without Macron picking a huge new fight on the French retirement age?

The President argues that he was given a “mandate” for pension reform by his victory in the presidential election in April. That is dubious. It would be more accurate to say that he lost his parliamentary majority in June because voters detested the idea of working for longer and Macron failed to make the argument why they should.

Now, after a period of drift, the President has decreed that pensions will be the ground on which he fights for a domestic legacy.

Despite a first term disrupted by Covid, despite the loss of his parliamentary majority, Macron wants to be the first President for half a century to leave France stronger than he found it – whether France likes it or not.

Let battle commence.