Liberty suffers in French bomb panic

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The Independent Online


Last night an investigative television series was launched in France without its starring item: a critical examination of the President's security arrangements. It was considered too sensitive for the current climate and was withdrawn.

On Friday an episode of a popular police drama, Commissaire Moulin, was replaced as being likely to "sow panic" about the terrorist threat. Both were casualties of the nationwide alert introduced after the most recent terrorist attack, on a Jewish school near Lyon.

Two months after the first bomb, which killed seven people and injured 80 at St Michel Metro station in Paris, a big security operation continues and with it a progressive curtailment of accepted freedoms. It is not just that there are troops and riot police on the streets of many cities, nor that rigid precautions are in force around public buildings, nor that controls on all French borders have risen to a severity that reminds some travellers of the former East Germany. It is rather that so many of the precautions now in force under the state of alert are unpublished and cannot be challenged.

Last week, in an overt act of censorship rarely associated with France, the Interior Minister, Jean-Louis Debre, banned a book. It was the White Book on Repression in Algeria, 1991-1994, castigating restrictions and excesses by the French-backed government. The reason given was that the book was an "incitement to hatred" and "could threaten public order". The book comprises case-studies and eye-witness accounts. A journalist on Le Monde who has seen a copy said the minister's arguments "risk not convincing the world of publishing".

Some curbs are doubtless ordained by the security provisions. Others seem to be the result of psychological pressure exerted on the media by, among others, the President. In his television address on 5 September, just before France conducted its latest nuclear test, Jacques Chirac said he was worried by some of the reporting of the terrorist attacks, suggesting that it verged on the sensational and could foster a "psychosis of fear".

The result was an emergency meeting of the broadcasting commission and a noticeable drop in all reporting about terrorism, together with the observance of something akin to a "party line": much talk of distinguishing fundamentalism from Islam, still more talk about inter-religious harmony - and the banning of last night's television feature on the President's security.

Every day thousands of people, most of them of North African appearance, are stopped and searched while going about their normal daily business. At the last count, given by the Interior Minister last week, close to 1 million people had been stopped since the St Michel bombing.

Several callers to a recent phone-in on a radio station for North African listeners said they understood the reasons for the checks and were "proud" to show their ID papers. Other reports suggest the checks are causing increasing friction between some Muslim communities and the police. Last week it also emerged that Paris Charles de Gaulle airport was laying off 30 of its non-French, non-EU, employees, citing the new security provisions. Those affected included North Africans and also Filipinos and others.

Since the Lyon attack, four sets of early-morning raids have been reported, one in and around Paris, two around Lyon and one near Grenoble. Three people arrested near Lyon were brought to Paris and questioned. It is not known exactly how many more of the more than 30 detained are still being held: "at least three" is the only information released. The lack of information - all aspects of the anti-terrorist inquiry are classified - is one side of the coin. The other is the selective way in which information is provided. After the second Lyon raid, police issued photographs and the name of a suspect whose fingerprints were said to have been found on an unexploded bomb on the railway line near Lyon. In 24 hours the media were full of profiles of Khaled Kelkal. Even allowing for differences between the French and British legal systems, his chances of a fair hearing if detained look slim. The accuracy of the information, or where it came from, has hardly been challenged.