Veni Vidi Vichy?

French Parliamentary Elections Outcome Highlights the Dangers of Surveillance Governance

At a Glance

This Sunday, and for the first time since the Second World War, France may be ruled by a far-right government. After seven years in power marked by political polarization, social strife, and geopolitical tensions, Emmanuel Macron has dissolved the National Assembly and precipitated elections for the country's legislative body. While Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement National (RN) is poised to have a relative majority in the Assembly, many observers have noted that Macron's policies have paved the way for an eventual victory for France's far-right. Be it through criminalization of activists, the adoption of the far-right's own themes and vocabulary, or the sponsoring of laws historically defended by this segment of the political landscape, the ephemeral centrism for which Macron was hailed in 2017 gradually veered into its own type of liberal conservatism. After claiming victory on the ideological front, and if it is victorious on Sunday, the RN will also have at its disposal the formidable surveillance capacities amassed by the French state during Macron's seven years.

Illusions Lost

Emmanuel Macron's first successful showdown against Marine Le Pen in the 2017 presidential elections was seen as a symbol for many across the globe. As the United Kingdom reeled from the outcome of Brexit and American society was engulfed in the culture wars marking Donald Trump's presidency, France had clearly refused the far right's agenda. Instead of the heiress to the French far-right, the French people had voted en masse for Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker and Minister of Industry to the outgoing President.

Macron played to the contrast between himself and his openly populist counterparts across the globe: he defended a more interconnected European Union (EU) where they called for its dismantling and called to #makeourplanetgreatagain in opposition to Trump's vow to #makeamericagreatagain. The party Macron had founded to vie for the French Presidency, initially known as La République en Marche (The Republic on the Move), itself advocated for open dialog and became the home of many important French political figures. Crafting a cabinet made up of former members of the center-right Les Républicains and the moribund social-democrat Parti Socialiste, Macron's pitch was simple: whatever your background, join us to make France move forwards.

As the presidential majority, in fact, moved forwards, it became clear that Macron's approach to governance did not adequate with the values of tolerance, open dialogue, and spirited debate that he spoke of on the campaign trail. Between 2018 and 2020, the yellow vest movement mobilized against the presidential majority's abrogation of the solidarity tax on the wealthy, taxes on diesel, and decreasing purchasing power. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the Elysée palace's policies, where they were met with force. Footage showed police responding in an disproportionately violent way to protesters, notably aiming flash ball grenades meant to be fired in the legs to protesters' heads. In 2023, masses protested an unpopular pension reform law forcibly passed by the presidential majority; authorities' response to protesters once again was marked by its violence. This time, the Ministry of the Interior deployed an elite police unit known as the BRAV-M to bring calm back to the streets. Recourse for citizens potentially victimized by the BRAV-M would be difficult: the officers wore all black and did not wear insignia. BRAV-M officers seemed to be aware of this as they told protesters that they "really have a slappable face", boasting that they had "broken elbows and faces" before. Macron's approach to protesters in Paris echoed those ordered by Donald Trump in Portland, showing that, decidedly, the wunderkind of liberal internationalism and the mascot of right-wing populism had more in common than initially expected.

Macron's France also disappointed on foreign affairs, particularly on the topic of spyware. In 2021, Emmanuel Macron himself was victimized by spyware as Moroccan hackers deployed Pegasus on his phone and on the mobile devices of other key French decision-makers. Because of this incident, and Macron's promises of transparency, observers expected France to be bullish on the question of spyware commercialization and proliferation. Instead, the President retreated into the smoke-filled backrooms characterizing the old world that he denounced as a candidate; France actively opposes any attempts to completely outlaw spyware within the EU to this day. Under Macron's presidency, France has continued to facilitate the export spyware to regimes infamous for their human rights records, whereas the President has dispatched one of his closest advisors to sell spyware to Saudi Arabia. Nexa, the maker of the Predator spyware, sold the spyware to the warlord Khalifa Haftar in Libya during an arms embargo: France's Ministry of the Economy and its anti-terrorism court actively obstructed attempts to investigate the sale. Bruno Le Maire, France's Minister of Economy, refuses to answer questions on the topic to this day. The French Ministries of Interior and Defence also fought back against the European Parliament's European Media Freedom Act's (EMFA) attempt to outlaw deployment of spyware on journalists. They were successful in adding a clause whereby states had full discretion on which tools they used and their choice of targets "regarding safeguarding national security".

The Ensauvagement of the French Police

In the last few years in France, the figure that most aptly embodies the presidency succumbing to securitarian rhetoric was certainly Gérald Darmanin. A former cadre of Les Républicains, Darmanin is the longest serving of Macron's three Ministers of the Interior. Almost immediately upon his nomination, Darmanin stood out for his unhesitant and repeated use of the far-right's terms and themes, casting himself as the defender of law and order in France. He stood behind his description of a societal ensauvagement, an amorphous term with scientist ambitions often used by the far-right to argue for the incompatibility of Muslims within French society. As is often the case in history, events straddled the line between comical and tragic as Darmanin characterized Le Pen as "soft on Islam" in a debate.

Surprisingly, one of the first targets of France's top cop was not, as is unfortunately so often the case since 2001, Islamic communities or Muslim activists, but environmentalists. In 2022, Darmanin described protesters opposing large water reservoirs in Sainte Soline as ecoterrorists and the Ministry of the Interior dissolved the climate-oriented activist group Les Soulèvements de la Terre for inciting violence. While Darmanin's decision was ultimately found to be unlawful by French courts and reversed, the extent to which surveillance was used against ecological groups was truly seen after the arrest of 35 activists in 2023. The Ministry of the Interior established the Demeter cell, an investigative unit entirely dedicated to deeds of ecoterrorism whose legality remains unclear. What is known is that the activists were extensively tracked through conventional means, including through video surveillance, physical surveillance teams, monitoring through DNA collection, and even open-source research online. Less conventionally, the Ministry of the Interior also weaponized activists' mobile devices, including wiretaps, usage of IMSI trackers, and even spyware to eavesdrop on protesters. This marks a clear departure from more traditional policing methods and shows a desire to fully track the actions of targeted individuals. The French police no longer differentiated between individuals and their activism, no such distinction exists in mobile devices.

Surveillance against environmental activists in France also proved to be a useful testing ground for sophisticated video surveillance software that the Ministry of the Interior had acquired back in 2015. It also seems that its use against environmental activists predates the law passed in May 2023 allowing for its widespread use during the Paris Olympic Games, further questioning the legality of its use. According to investigations, police services have actually been secretly using the Israeli firm Briefcam's algorithmic video surveillance (AVS) software ever since its acquisitions after the Paris terrorist attacks. Doing so, the Ministry of the Interior actively bypassed European and French privacy protection laws and mechanisms: an impact analysis on data protection should have been conducted and submitted to an independent third-party, which still has not been conducted. Further, both the French Informatics and Freedom law and the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) forbid the usage of facial recognition techniques and processing of data from biometric identification systems.

Examining the user handbook for Briefcam's product, it becomes clear that the tool's impact on privacy should have been tested for usage. Operating it is simple enough: faces can be selected and are then recognized, based on the data against which it is being analyzed; in this case, the eight million records contained in the judicial antecedent processing database. Not only is this technology's usage deeply problematic as regards its use outside of legal frameworks, it also reiterates the increasing recourse to predictive policing through algorithms. As French public spaces morph into ever larger panopticons, the questions raised by these technologies are many and far-reaching.

Algorithm-Aided Crisis Management

Algorithms are not restricted to policing in France, they are increasingly being used as tools of governance as well. The economic and social reforms championed by Macron's majority inscribe themselves in those championed by other Western states since the 1980s. They entail reduced public spending on social services and safety nets, privatization of state-owned enterprises, cutting taxes, and removing trade barriers. The objective of these policies is to stimulate economic growth, although this was not seen with the same eagerness by a number of actors from French civil society. In the context of supply chains affected firstly by the COVID pandemic and then by the Russo-Ukrainian wars, inflation and the rising prices of goods became the daily lot of the French. In this context, Macron has the task of managing a social and economic crisis while cutting spending and optimizing the conditions for trade.

Given the task, the use of algorithms became a key tool for the government's reduction of social expenditures. This was firstly done by deploying an algorithm to oversee beneficiaries of the caisse d'allocations familiales (CAF), a family allowance distributed by the French government to over 30 million citizens. Although the stated intent of the algorithm was to identify instances where beneficiaries defrauded the CAF, the criteria based on which the decision to investigate recipients of the benefit was flimsy and arbitrary. Over forty parameters are used to rank recipients, including having a low income, unemployment, being a welfare recipient, living in underprivileged neighbourhoods, living with a handicap, or having irregular revenues contribute to a suspicion score that, in turn, increases the likelihood for fiscal controls. In addition to the very opaque nature of the development of the algorithm, it's worth noting that those criteria rarely occur individually and often manifest themselves together in an individual's life. When confronted with these arguments, the CAF's director defended the algorithm and argued that it did not penalize people for poverty. The CAF appears to be doubling down on algorithmic methods of administration of the benefit, now working to implement an algorithm giving them real-time insight into the financial resources of its beneficiaries. It will do so by pooling from a large database capturing each beneficiary's salary, social benefits, including pensions and disability support.

This attitude of suspicion towards the disadvantaged and those benefiting from the state's help was reiterated by the deployment of a second algorithm within France Travail (FT), the main governmental agency supporting the unemployed's professional reinsertion. Here, although much of the same criteria are used to grade applicants as in the CAF, obtained documents reveal that more information is collected, including their nationality, contact modalities, dates of employment and reasons for leaving, and, of course, applicants' IP addresses and cookies. 20 million euros were then spent to develop an artificial intelligence client that sought to anticipate applicant discouragement. Further, applicants are given a psychological score based on how fast they apply to job postings, how confident they are, and how likely they are to stop looking for jobs. A number of civil society actors have pointed out that this mechanism is patronizing and incredibly intrusive, but also that it encourages applicants to take whatever job will take them, often in sectors that are not stable and that entail difficult work conditions, at the risk of seeing their rating decrease. Far from the storytelling displaying AI as a companion to employment, in this context AI and algorithms appear to be ways to increase social control and foster an increasingly precarious employment climate.

Under the Microscope

In a famous speech held in 1995, French President Jacques Chirac broke with his predecessors by recognizing that the French state was complicit in the Holocaust. Yes, France was occupied after a humiliating military defeat. Yes, it was ruled through repression by the geriatric Marshal Pétain's collaborationist Vichy Regime. But, said Chirac, the French police and civil service put the administrative prowess it had honed since the Napoleonic Era at the service of the Nazi invader. French civil registries and other administrative artefacts made up the basis of the lists for raids conducted by Nazis in France to fill trains bound to Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Sobibor.

With the prospect of a victorious far-right in France, we are beckoned to remember Chirac's speech. To be sure, no hazardous historical arithmetic can justify an equivalency between the RN and invading Nazi troops. However, the surveillance methods fostered by Macron and Darmanin will be put to use to fulfill the RN's fundamentally exclusionary political project. In many ways, Le Pen's party resembles other illiberal, right-wing populist parties in that it campaigned on socioeconomic issues to draw dissatisfied working class and rural voters, only to abandon them once the likelihood of power approached. The RN has compromised on its economic platform to expand its voter base and it will do so again to ensure its grasp on power. That said, one aspect that will remain unchanged is its commitment to being the party of law and order; the commitment to fighting immigration is deeply ingrained into the RN's DNA. The powerful and intrusive nature of the surveillance tools used by France described in this article will certainly be helpful to the RN should it come to power.

In Europe, the far-right holds power in Italy and Hungary and participates in governments in the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Slovakia. Le Pen's party itself holds friendly ties with their kinfolk from other countries and, where those parties have won power, claims them as inspirations. Whatever contextual modulations, some similar trends can be noted in these countries: a steady erosion of institutional checks and balances, sales of media outlets to friendly parties, economic austerity, and a prioritization on repression over dialogue. Accordingly, we would like to highlight some independent and grassroots media outlets whose reporting contributed to this article and is prescient these days:

These websites have broken important stories on the interaction between surveillance technologies and civil liberties, many of them also publish their stories in English. We salute their engagement and their willingness to continue reporting these necessary news, especially given the tumultuous times on the horizon. A civil and social wave of protests awaits the RN were it to rise to power and it is clear that these will take place on the French street. If we are to believe examples across Europe, surveillance and repression are likely to be key tools for the RN should it face opposition; the situation remains uncertain.

After all, the issue with giving power to the far-right is that one never knows when it will give it back.