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Counterterrorism: Why France Is Tougher Than Britain

Counterterrorism: Why France Is Tougher Than Britain
9th May 2013 ICSR Team
In Insights

Counterterrorism practitioners and analysts have often been struck by the different policy approaches in France and Britain. France seems to be “tough on terrorists”, arresting and deporting them by the hundreds, while Britain has sometimes struggled to keep extremists locked up or send them back to their home countries. How do the two countries’ approaches differ, and why? 

Last week, ICSR Associate Fellow Frank Foley launched his new book – Countering Terrorism in Britain and France (CUP, 2013) – at an ICSR seminar in London. 

In this ICSR Insight, Foley provides a summary of his findings. He argues that Britain’s more cautious attitude has been driven by a fundamentally different attitude towards security and civil liberties.

Societal Context

To understand the two countries’ respective approaches to counterterrorism, we need to look at the nature of British and French society, especially the elite public discourse around security and liberty in the two countries.

My research indicates that the most influential elements of French society (such as government, political parties, judges and the media) show a large degree of consensus on the appropriate balance between security and liberty. The predominant view in France is that the security of the Republic supersedes other considerations.

In the UK, by contrast, influential actors propagate radically different, competing ideas on how society should seek to balance national security and the civil liberties of individuals. There is a vigorous debate on these issues in the British media and civil liberty NGOs and other liberal voices have been able to make an impact. The concept of security has been extensively contested by other ideas that potentially or actually contradict it, such as civil liberty, proportionality and respect for communities.

Different Legal Systems

Along with certain institutional differences, detailed in my book, these societal contexts have set different boundaries for counterterrorism in the two countries. France has a system of special non-jury courts for terrorism trials and it has a broad terrorist offence – the so-called “association of wrongdoers” offence – which allows it to cast the net wide and imprison a broad range of suspects.

Britain uses ordinary courts and jury trials for terrorism cases. Its terrorism offences are more precise than those of the French and not as wide-ranging. The government has introduced extraordinary measures, like indefinite detention of the Belmarsh detainees after 9/11, as well as Control Orders. However, there has been effective opposition to these measures and they have either been thrown out or significantly watered down by the courts or the government.

Overall, my book shows that the French legal regime for dealing with terrorists is more draconian that the British one. The consensus around security in French society has enabled the authorities to make this draconian response, while the UK government has been contested and constrained by influential elements of British society.

Counterterrorist Operations

There have also been significant differences between the two countries’ approaches to counterterrorist operations.

French police and intelligence officers rarely find themselves subject to harsh public scrutiny for being overzealous when dealing with Islamist terrorism. They operate in a relatively permissive environment, which has enabled them to mount invasive and indiscriminate counterterrorist operations – especially during the 1990s – arresting as many as 160 people in one operation. French officers told me that during certain periods, it was explicit police policy to arrest the maximum number of people possible; to do fishing expeditions, as one officer described it.

There is a different climate in the UK. The British media have devoted considerable space to reporting on and criticising counterterrorist law and operations. British police officers that I interviewed feel themselves under considerable public scrutiny. Some said that if they carried out mass arrests like the French have, there would be a public outcry. In practice, I also found that British operations against suspected terrorists have been more focused and discriminate than the French.

Evaluating Effectiveness

Differences between the two societies thus explain much about why the French have responded more harshly to Islamist terrorism, while the British have been more restrained. More restrained, however, does not necessarily mean less effective.

For a variety of reasons, which we don’t yet fully understand, extremist ideologies have found many followers in the UK and the country has faced significant numbers of Al Qaeda-inspired terrorist plots over the last decade. An overly heavy-handed legal and police response could well have exacerbated that situation by creating grievances that could have helped such ideologies to win an even larger audience than they already had.

Instead, there has been a battle of ideas over security and liberty in Britain. Counterterrorist policy and operations have been challenged and constrained. In my view, this debate has helped to moderate the government’s response in a way that is beneficial for counterterrorism in the long term: in particular, it has helped to avoid a dramatic escalation of the situation that could have divided communities, bolstered extremism, and – possibly – led to more terrorist attacks in the UK than we have seen.

Frank Foley’s Countering Terrorism in Britain and France: Institutions, Norms and the Shadow of the Past is published by Cambridge University Press.

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