Surveillance (illustration)
Surveillance (illustration)Reuters

French lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a new law on Tuesday granting the state sweeping powers to spy on its citizens in an attempt to weed out terrorists, amid criticism from rights groups that the bill is vague and intrusive, reports AFP.

The law has been in the works for some time but gained additional support after an Islamic jihadist terror spree in January that left 17 murdered and saw Paris gripped with fear for three days.

France is still on high alert as it has received repeated threats from jihadist groups abroad, and was reminded of the peril of homegrown extremism when police thwarted a planned attack on a church two weeks ago.

The bill was passed by 438 votes to 86 in the lower house National Assembly, with broad support from both main parties. Only the far-left and greens were strongly opposed.

It will go before the upper house Senate later this month.

Amnesty International has protested against the legislation, warning it will take France "a step closer to a surveillance state."

"This bill is too vague, too far-reaching and leaves too many unanswered questions. Parliament should ensure that measures meant to protect people from terror should not violate their basic rights," said Amnesty's Europe director Gauri van Gulik.

Not a "Patriot Act"

The new law will allow authorities to spy on the digital and mobile communications of anyone linked to a terrorist inquiry without prior authorization from a judge, and forces Internet service providers and phone companies to give up data upon request.

Intelligence services will have the right to place cameras and recording devices in private dwellings, and install "keylogger" devices that record every key stroke on a targeted computer in real time.

The authorities will be able to keep recordings for a month, and metadata for five years.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls has fiercely defended the bill, saying that to compare it to the wide-reaching surveillance "Patriot Act" introduced in the United States after the 9/11 attacks was a "lie."

He has pointed out that the previous law on wiretapping dates back to 1991, "when there were no mobile phones or Internet," which makes the new bill crucial in the face of terrorist threats.

France decided to shake up its spy laws after the January 7-9 attacks on the Paris offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine, a policewoman and a Jewish supermarket that sent shockwaves around the world.

Hundreds of its citizens - more than any other European country - have left to join terrorist groups such as the Islamic State group (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria and fears are high they may return to carry out attacks on home soil.

After an Algerian was recently arrested purely by chance before carrying out an attack on a church, Valls warned the country has never "had to face this kind of terrorism in our history."

Majority of French support the bill

Perhaps the most controversial of the bill's proposals are so-called "black boxes" - or complex algorithms - that Internet providers will be forced to install to flag up a pattern of suspicious behavior online, such as what keywords someone types, what sites they consult and who they contact and when.

A poll published last month showed that nearly two-thirds of French people were in favor of restricting freedoms in the name of fighting extremism.

Only 32% of those surveyed in the CSA poll for the Atlantico news website said they were opposed to freedoms being reduced, although this proportion rose significantly among young people.

However, the national digital council, an independent advisory body, has come out against the proposed legislation.

The group said it was akin to "mass surveillance" which it claimed has "been shown to be extremely inefficient in the United States."

It also said it was "unsuited to the challenges of countering terrorist recruitment" and "does not provide sufficient guarantees in terms of freedoms."