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French Kiss Your Privacy Goodbye

Original illustration by Rosalia Mejia ’23, an Industrial Design major at RISD

In 2024, exactly one hundred years after Paris last hosted the Summer Olympics, France will once again welcome the Games. With an economy still recovering from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, a historically unpopular president, and an energy and diplomatic crisis sparked by the war in Ukraine, the Games offer an unprecedented opportunity for France to reestablish its reputation at home and abroad. But for the French public, still scarred by the ISIS- and al-Qaeda-affiliated terror attacks of the past decade, international sporting events provoke as much anxiety as they do excitement. 

Knowing that the success or failure of the Olympics will be scrutinized worldwide, and highly alert to the possibilities of sabotage or an embarrassment like last year’s Champions League final, President Emmanuel Macron’s government is proposing a massive expansion of the national security and surveillance apparatus. Although the expansion is slated to expire in 2025, given the legacy of terror attacks and the politically permissive atmosphere of the Games, it appears likely the French government is attempting to use the Olympics as a smokescreen for a permanent expansion of its surveillance infrastructure.

While France has long benefited from its close relationship with the United States, the two countries often find themselves at policy odds. The Trump presidency strained Franco-American relations, and tensions have continued into the Biden administration. Macron’s government has expressed disapproval of subsidies for US manufacturers written into The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, calling for global approaches to new climate infrastructure rather than protectionism. In 2021, the United States undermined a $66 billion submarine deal between France and Australia, exacerbating France’s sense that it is being abandoned by its traditional allies and prompting international debate over whether it should still be considered a global power in the 21st century. The outbreak of war in Ukraine has only added to France’s status anxiety; in the wake of the invasion, international diplomatic attention focused on Germany as the standard-bearer for the West’s military response. With insufficient military capacity to redirect this attention, France has followed Germany’s lead in supplying arms rather than charting its own path.

The Olympic opportunity thus arrives at a delicate moment for France, providing an avenue of hope in reestablishing the country as a leader in international cooperation. Historically, Olympic bids are accompanied by complex diplomatic agendas; China notoriously used the 2008 Beijing Olympics to refurbish its global image after international criticism of its policies toward Tibet and Taiwan. It is probable that the tourism, journalism, and economic activity roused by the Olympics will enable France to seek stronger footing in a changing international order. Hosting the Games, despite the necessary economic investment, is also hugely popular domestically and contributes to a sense of national unity—always a boon for the government in power, but especially for an unpopular one.

The national excitement associated with the Games could be vital to France’s future, especially considering how the country’s cultural identity and relationship to international sporting events has been threatened by devastating terrorist attacks. In January 2015, two al-Qaeda-affiliated gunmen forced their way into the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and murdered 12. In November of the same year, ISIS-affiliated suicide bombers struck the Stade de France (France’s national stadium), and groups of gunmen attacked the Bataclan theater and the shopping districts of the 10th arrondissement of Paris, killing 130. 

The attacks and the recently-concluded trials that followed have strained the country’s already tenuous relationship to multiculturalism and its increasing Muslim immigrant population. Secularism ranks among the most important founding principles of the Fifth Republic, and the government has used the supposed danger of religious attire such as niqābs to justify increased surveillance of Muslims. The lingering specter of Islamic terrorism poses a dual threat—the sense of cultural erosion of French secularism, and the literal devastation of attacks—rendering difficult national security decisions especially fraught.

The 2015 attacks remain vivid in the national consciousness, and to the individual politicians charged with planning for the security of the Olympics. “I am not worried, but have the caution of someone who saw the bodies of Parisians in the street on November 13, 2015,” said Paris Deputy Mayor Emmanuel Grégoire on the upcoming Games. Echoing this concern, late last year Macron’s government proposed an expansion of France’s national security network. 

If passed in its original form, the law would have installed thousands of security cameras across the Paris metropolitan region and allowed for “experimentation” with new and widespread surveillance systems, including, most controversially, the use of facial recognition software. Criticism of the legislation’s most extreme proposals followed quickly thereafter; France’s National Commission on Technology and Liberty (CNIL) lodged complaints against the law, forcing more privacy safeguards to be included in an updated version. 

In January of this year, the Senate approved the slightly modified version of the law by a vote of 245 to 28. Though the use of facial recognition software is no longer included (per the CNIL’s recommendations), the bill still facilitates the widespread implementation of security cameras and scanners, as well as the expansion of regional police authority via a recently established operations center in Paris. The imposition of more monitoring and recording of the public sphere and more verification of identity cards threatens to violate Parisians’ right to privacy. The expansion of the police state will also almost certainly lead to difficult interactions, or even violence, between law enforcement and civilians, as occurred during the Champions League final

Perhaps most concerningly, the time range described by the “temporary” legislation extends almost a year past the end of the Olympics to 2025—after which time it can be renewed. Further, the security plan applies to all “festival” and “cultural” events as well as sporting ones; critics have warned that these terms could encompass almost any major event that takes place before the legislation times out. 

Technology and security services implemented during major sporting events like the Olympics also often leave a mark after the Games end. The central police operations center constructed for the 2016 Olympics remains fully operational in Rio de Janeiro. Similarly, during the 2008 Games in Beijing, the risk of terrorism was used as justification for the implementation of security measures that persist in China’s present-day surveillance state. 

In France, a country still reckoning with the fallout of devastating terrorist attacks and a decrease in global influence, the temptation to leave such an expanded security net operational will be huge. Macron’s government has not yet commented on the likelihood of permanent adoption, but considering that it will invest significant resources in training security algorithms leading up to the Olympics, it seems unlikely to abandon its new systems in 2025. If its surveillance practices outlast the Games, France will have to reckon with its abandonment of the right to privacy in the name of security.