Workers Vanguard No. 1039
7 February 2014
Surveillance State à la Française
The immense reach of the U.S. and European spy agencies is now out in the open due to the efforts of former National Security Agency (NSA) analyst Edward Snowden. In response, the imperialist powers are taking steps to give their mass surveillance greater legal sanction. A prime example is provided by the French government of Socialist Party president François Hollande, which devised a new domestic spying law—presented as “Article 20” of a military spending bill—to take advantage of the latest technologies like GPS.
Enacted in December without any serious objection in Parliament, this legislation defined the conditions under which government agencies may harvest telephone conversations, e-mails, Internet activity and personal location data. Lacking even the pretense of judicial oversight, the guidelines allow the vacuuming up of data for a broad range of purposes, including “national security,” prevention of “terrorism” or the protection of France’s “scientific and economic potential,” thus expanding the list of state agencies authorized to engage in electronic surveillance.
The groundwork for Article 20 was laid in 1991 under Socialist Party president François Mitterrand, who legalized the longstanding and widespread practice of domestic snooping. The Mitterrand government also established a global satellite surveillance network with bases in the colonies of Mayotte and French Guyana operated in collaboration with the German secret service (BND).
In the U.S., with a wide swath of the population expressing unease over the scope of the NSA spying, president Obama announced a series of measures last month to give the capitalist rulers’ spying apparatus the appearance of greater accountability. A number of liberals hailed the proposals, among them Democrats on Capitol Hill considered critics of certain NSA practices. As we previously noted, we would welcome any hurdle thrown up in the path of the expanding surveillance state. But what Obama has offered is nothing of the sort. In fact, his speech was largely a paean to the NSA.
In a forum presentation held in October and November in New York City, Paris and London, Spartacist League spokesman Alison Spencer explained:
“The spy agencies’ central purpose is to do the dirty work that goes on behind the scenes of the ‘normal’ administrative mechanisms of bourgeois democracy—the surveillance, burglaries, black-bag jobs, infiltration and tricks by agents provocateurs, extraordinary renditions, torture and murder. A whole system of class exploitation—and in this country racial oppression—that is maintained through state repression is not going to come crashing down or be fundamentally reformed…through Congressional cosmetic reforms behind which the state continues its murderous work. Nothing less than victorious socialist revolution can abolish capitalism’s secret police and their deadly ‘dirty tricks’.”
—“Spying, Repression, War:
Pillars of Capitalist Rule,”
WV No. 1037, 10 January
The forum traced the history of U.S. domestic spying and state repression of leftists, union militants and fighters for black rights over the last century. By shedding some light on the more recent predations and surveillance operations of the American government, Chelsea Manning and Snowden provided a great service to the working class and oppressed. But doing so came at great personal cost. Manning was sentenced to 35 years in military prison last year, and Attorney General Eric Holder recently ruled out any deal involving clemency for Snowden, who is for now still holed up in Russia. Then there is WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who remains in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.
We reprint below, edited for publication, accompanying remarks by Xavier Brunoy from the Ligue Trotskyste de France at the forum in Paris on 21 November 2013 that addressed similar themes in the case of France.
* * *
Loud howls of protest were provoked in Europe when Snowden revealed that the NSA was tapping the cell phones of “European partners,” such as German chancellor Angela Merkel and French diplomats. These cries had barely died down when more revelations came out, exposing that these “victims” were doing exactly the same thing as the U.S. The German BND foreign intelligence agency asked the Merkel government to amend the law “to make it more flexible for sharing protected data with foreign partners.” The British imperialists operate a secret service that plays a central role in the NSA’s network. They showed their loyalty by detaining David Miranda (the partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald, who published Snowden’s initial revelations) at London Heathrow airport and by destroying the Guardian’s copy of Snowden’s files. Thankfully, several other copies exist.
The shrewd Bernard Kouchner, Minister of Foreign Affairs under former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, exposed the hypocrisy of Hollande’s whining about the NSA when he stated on a France-Info radio broadcast: “They pretend to have just discovered this surveillance, meanwhile their own secret service agencies work together and France has a similar system.” And he’s right. When it was revealed that more than 70 million communications were intercepted in France, the NSA director hastened to fire back that the majority of these intercepted communications were provided to the NSA by the French secret services. And the French were compelled to admit it was true. Kouchner added: “Let’s be honest, we listen in too. Everybody listens in on everybody else. It’s just that we don’t have the means the United States does, and that makes us jealous.”
Le Monde revealed that the French company Amesys sold an Eagle surveillance system (functionally equivalent to the NSA’s Prism program) to the Libyan government. In 2008, former directors of French military intelligence trained Libyan spies. A similar system was sold to the Syrian government by the German company Utimaco. Sensors that make it possible to intercept 5.3 million calls simultaneously and retain two years of metadata were provided by the French company Qosmos, which also, according to one of the company’s founders, worked with the DGSE (the French foreign intelligence service). So much for the innocence of French imperialism.
It is interesting to note that these Qosmos sensors are sold to government spy agencies as well as to private telecommunications companies, which for financial purposes gather essentially the same metadata as the police. This explains the permeability between leaders of private communications companies and the NSA.
Pioneers of Mass Surveillance
Alison observed that all fighters for social change are on a list. In this regard, the French bourgeoisie has a long history, and we can even say that it was, in its time, a pioneer. In the 19th century, the French bourgeoisie established the first police records on people in Europe. The files included everyone who had been found guilty in a court of law. Or to put it more plainly, all the poor people who were struggling to survive in the cities.
This work was later rationalized in the 1880s by a guy named Bertillon, whose methods were then copied by police agencies all over the world. The records included color-coded cards and notes on physical traits, to which fingerprints and photographs were later added. One hardly needs to point out how useful these types of files were for the army and the police. At the end of the 19th century, socialist militants had files on them, as did the anarchists, who were actively tracked. For example, in 1886 French General Boulanger began compiling the notorious Carnet B list of those considered potential wartime subversives.
Foreigners were also under surveillance, with records kept on them. As a result of wars as well as the massive increase in immigration brought about by the industrial revolution, the number of people with records rapidly grew as the police sought to keep tabs on the entire “non-French” population. In the 1880s, foreigners had to register and get a receipt, which became the “alien identity card” during World War I. This card was an extremely effective means of control: the police knew immediately whether or not the person they stopped was in good standing, that is, whether or not they should be imprisoned or deported. This card was maintained after the war.
As we said in our supplement on Leonarda [the Roma schoolgirl deported from France last October, see WV No. 1035, 29 November 2013], nomadic people were always particular targets for surveillance and kept in the files. Those “found guilty and without a permanent address” were put on special lists. Thereafter, all nomadic people were subject to even more persecution. The witchhunt against the Roma by Sarkozy and now Minister of Interior Manuel Valls is simply the continuation of a long tradition.
Of course, in the computer age, and in light of the new figures of those spied upon with each passing day, all this may seem like small potatoes. But at the time it was substantial.
Police Records and
the Vichy Regime
The dangers inherent in being on file under the Third Republic became blatantly obvious when it gave way to the Vichy regime during World War II. Marshall Pétain, the quisling pro-Nazi leader of Vichy France, inherited the files on everyone. All the French police had to do was consult the files to organize roundups and arrests. First the Jews, but also homosexuals, Gypsies and more. All those who the national intelligence agencies had patiently and meticulously kept files on, day after day, for years on end, could suddenly end up in one of Pétain’s jails or a death camp.
The French bourgeoisie’s dreams of keeping files on the entire population to control everyone were realized under the Vichy regime. Every individual living in France was assigned a unique number. A census was organized to assure that nobody had been overlooked, and the country was combed by thousands of census-takers. The national identity card, which served as an internal passport, was instituted in 1940. Starting in 1942, it specified whether the holder was Jewish. This card became universal and mandatory in 1943, featuring the infamous number stamped on it.
At the end of WWII, during the period called “Liberation,” this apparatus for controlling the population was maintained intact by the de Gaulle/Communist Party coalition governments. The individual number instituted by Pétain became what is commonly known in France as the social security number. In 1947, a directory of all social security numbers was established. Think about it for just one moment: how many files are associated with this infamous number and what can be and is done with it? As for the national identity card, few people are aware that it has not been mandatory since October 1955. But do you know many French people who don’t carry it? And for good reason, since it is still a piece of identification that proves French citizenship, and the cops can demand to see your papers at any time.
France’s Colonial Wars
During the war in Indochina and later the Algerian War, the French army worked out a doctrine of “revolutionary war” to suppress the people in France’s colonies who were struggling for independence. In contrast to classic warfare, the French army found itself in Indochina pitted against an enemy that was completely ensconced in the local population. The Vietnamese National Liberation Front had tremendous support among the masses. The French needed to know who was an enemy and who was not. They had to rely on intelligence to find out who thought what.
The implementation of this doctrine reached new heights during the Battle of Algiers when French General Massu’s and General Bigeard’s infamous paratroopers sought to destroy the political wing of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) in that city. To this end, the French paratroopers started records on everyone who lived in the Casbah (where they lived, with whom they lived, etc.) They set up a network of informers and other spies for the purpose of gathering all the information they needed about the “enemy.” The city was sealed off, and its residents were put under surveillance. Continuous patrols systematically knocked on doors and terrorized people in a (failed) attempt to drive a wedge between the population and the nationalist and Communist agitators.
As soon as they found someone with FLN ties, the paratroopers swept the entire area to figure out who was in contact with that individual in order to reconstruct the network around him. The military used every means at its disposal to make that person talk, including torture, an area in which the French army acquired considerable experience.
Those who devised this doctrine of “revolutionary war” were convinced that all nationalists or Communists who fought for independence in the Third World were manipulated by the USSR, that they were the vanguard of international Communism, with Moscow pulling the strings from afar in its quest to rule the world. And anything and everything was permissible to counter the “Communist threat.” The French military brass who perpetrated these horrors, like General Aussaresses, later trained thousands of officers in Latin America as well as the United States. The U.S. Army put this expertise to use in Vietnam, as did various military dictatorships in Latin America. Last September was the 40th anniversary of the 1973 coup in Chile. That coup was the Battle of Algiers writ large, with thousands of people killed under torture or otherwise.
“War on Terror” Repression
What’s changed since the demise of the USSR is the primary target of the capitalist state. With the USSR gone and the proletariat no longer on center stage, there is, at the moment, no direct threat to the French bourgeoisie. Of course, they always keep their eyes on the working class, as we saw in the trial in Roanne (in central France) of CGT trade-union activists who refused to provide the police with DNA samples. The secret services focus on those who resist rapacious exploitation and imperialist domination of the neocolonial world. Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the “fight against Islamic terrorism” has been wielded to go after such political opposition. Other targets for surveillance are France’s imperialist rivals, as part of the competition for the world’s spoils.
In the fight against “terrorism,” the enemy is considered to live nestled in the heart of the population, among immigrants and their children and grandchildren. The French army’s “revolutionary war” teachings still have currency. There is a continuity between the methods today and those used in the fight against the “terrorists” of the 1950s and ’60s, that is, people struggling for their independence. The same methods, but modernized.
Electronics, computers and technological advances enable the state to search for the same type of information faster. Electronic probes, data centers and software get the job done without the state having to pay for so many finks and informers. Smartphones make it possible to locate people and even record meetings of people considered dangerous. Social networking makes it possible to establish profiles of millions of people. Electronic surveillance facilitates the amassing of all kinds of data on people. All it takes is a few clicks of the mouse to transform any person into a “terrorist,” a designation for which the capitalists set the criteria.
And when the working-class and minority neighborhoods explode, the cops go on patrol, comb the streets and cast a dragnet to terrorize and intimidate, just as the paratroopers did during the Algerian War. What the bourgeoisie fears above all is that the youth in these neighborhoods might trigger a social explosion, as occurred in the past, such as when students sparked the May 1968 general strike. That’s one reason why there is such massive repression against the youth who have no future in this society. The government wages racist campaigns (similar to the psychological warfare conducted during the Algerian War) to separate and isolate not only these youth but the entire layer of the working class that is immigrant or of immigrant descent. Divide and conquer.
With or without electronic means, the bourgeoisie’s army and police can never stop the class struggle and working-class upheavals. We had the 1871 Paris Commune, the first workers government in history. I would note that in its fight against the capitalists and in an effort to avoid getting crushed, the Commune’s police chief ruthlessly tracked down the bourgeois Versailles government’s spies and informers. So he kept files on people. The problem is not keeping files per se, but what class it serves. Unfortunately, such measures were insufficient and incomplete. Among other things, the Commune did not have a revolutionary party to lead it to victory, the kind of party that we want to build.