Fighting Terrorism, French-Style

News Analysis

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Ian Langsdon/European Pressphoto Agency

French soldiers on patrol near the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

By STEVEN ERLANGER
Published: March 30, 2012

FRANCE and the United States have different notions of liberty, equality and fraternity, though the words look roughly the same in both languages. Methods of combating homegrown terrorism — another French word dating from 1789 — are also quite different, stemming from different histories, legal systems and conceptions of the state.

The horrors in Toulouse — the murders of seven people in a bit more than a week by Mohammed Merah, a 23-year-old French citizen of Algerian-born parents who claimed membership in Al Qaeda — created a fierce debate in France about whether the police and security services failed to identify him in time. The police also failed to take him alive, making it harder to discover the true breadth of his contacts and of his path to terrorism.

Mr. Merah clearly slipped through the French net, which relies heavily on human intelligence and judgment. The French are asking why, and whether he might have been more easily identified by the more automated — and expensive — American-style reliance on computerized monitoring of phone calls and the Internet. That question is unanswerable, of course. But the differences between the two countries and their methods are considerable.

“In the United States, it is the system that counts; in France, it is the men,” says Marc Trévidic, a senior investigating magistrate for terrorism in France.

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