Today we start a new series on In Custodia Legis! “FALQs” are “Frequently Asked Legal Questions.” We will briefly discuss interesting and useful information on laws and legal issues related to events from around the world. Please feel free to let us know in the comments if there are particular global events or issues that you would be interested in learning about from a legal perspective (noting of course that we can’t provide legal advice on private matters).
Our first post is by Nicolas Boring, the French law specialist at the Law Library of Congress. He has previously written posts for In Custodia Legis on “How Sunday Came to be a Day of Rest in France,” “Napoleon Bonaparte and Mining Rights in France,” and “French Law – Global Legal Collection Highlights.”
In the wake of the tragic attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and on a kosher supermarket that occurred in Paris on January 7-9, we thought it would be useful to give a brief explanation of certain legal issues related to terrorism in France. The attack on Charlie Hebdo has also put the spotlight on the issue of freedom of speech in France, an issue which will be the subject of a future blog post on my part.
1. How does French law define terrorism?
The French Code pénal (Criminal Code) defines terrorism as a number of listed acts – including intentional homicide, assault, kidnapping, hijacking, theft, extortion, property destruction, membership in an illegal armed group, digital crimes, forgery, and more – carried out with the goal of “seriously disturbing public order through intimidation or terror.” Preparing to commit an act of terrorism, and seeking, obtaining, and keeping material to be used for an act of terrorism, is also considered an act of terrorism in and of itself. Intelligence gathering and training for the purpose of carrying out an act of terrorism also falls under that definition, as does the habitual access to websites that encourage or justify terrorism. (Code pénal, arts. 421-1 to 421-6.)
French law has long dealt with terrorism. Much of the current law on this issue is fairly recent, however, and stems from a 2012 law (Loi n° 2012-1432 du 21 décembre 2012 relative à la sécurité et à la lutte contre le terrorisme [Law No. 2012-1432 of December 21, 2012, Regarding Security and the Fight Against Terrorism], and an even more recent 2014 law (Loi n° 2014-1353 du 13 novembre 2014 renforçant les dispositions relatives à la lutte contre le terrorisme [Law No. 2014-1353 of November 13, 2014, Reinforcing Provisions Regarding the Fight Against Terrorism].
2. What is the penalty for acts of terrorism under French law?
Terrorism appears to be generally considered an aggravating circumstance to the underlying offense. For example, money laundering is ordinarily punishable by up to five years of imprisonment (Code pénal, art. 324-1), but this is increased to seven years if the money laundering was related to terrorism (id., art. 421-3). Absent any aggravating circumstance, murder is punishable by thirty years of imprisonment (id., art. 221-1), but if the murder was committed as an act of terrorism, the punishment is increased to life imprisonment (id., art. 421-3).
3. What law enforcement agencies are involved in the fight against terrorism in France?
All French law enforcement agencies are involved, to some degree or another, in the fight against terrorism. One of the most important agencies in that fight, however, is probably the Direction générale de la sécurité intérieure (General Directorate for Internal Security, or DGSI), which is essentially a domestic intelligence agency. The Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure (General Directorate for External Security, or DGSE), France’s external intelligence agency, has a strong role in fighting terrorism on an international level.
France’s two “generalist” law enforcement agencies, the National Police and the Gendarmerie, also have an important role in the fight against terrorism. In particular, both of these agencies have SWAT units that are specialized in dealing with hostage situations and other terrorist attacks: the RAID (which is a unit of the National Police), and the GIGN (which belongs to the Gendarmerie). Both of these groups intervened on January 9. The GIGN led the assault against the Kouachi brothers, who had attacked Charlie Hebdo two days earlier. Simultaneously, the RAID led the assault against Amedy Coulibaly, who had attacked the kosher supermarket in which he was holding hostages.