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What is France’s ‘fiche S’ national security watch list?

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What is France’s ‘fiche S’ national security watch list?
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The perpetrators of a number of terrorist attacks in France over recent years have been revealed to have been known to police and often designated as "fiché S".

But what exactly is the list, and why has it come under fire?

What is the list?

Some 20,000 people are categorised as “fiché S” in France, of whom around 4,000 are considered dangerous.

The list covers a wide range of individuals it is thought could pose a security risk: from those suspected of plotting terrorist acts to political protesters considered to be violent.

Others may have aroused suspicion of radicalisation because they no longer shake hands with women at work, or for assiduously watching Islamist propaganda online.

Many of those on the list have not done anything illegal. Some may be classed as “fiche S” because of their contacts.

Why has it come under fire?

Critics say that the list doesn't do enough to stop terrorism.

In May, when police revealed that the perpetrator of a knife attack in Paris had been on the list, the political right accused President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist government of being too lax in the face of repeated attacks.

“What purpose can this ‘fiche S’ serve if we don’t stop these time bombs from causing damage on French soil?” asked National Front leader Marine Le Pen on Twitter.

Laurent Wauquiez, leader of the centre-right Republicans, denounced official “blindness and inaction”. He called on Macron and his government to bring in measures allowing for the possible internment of individuals considered the most dangerous.

Why aren't people on the list already detained?

To counter their critics, the previous French government under President François Hollande put the question of possible internment to the test — and the country’s top court ruled it out.

“On a constitutional and conventional basis, it is not possible for the law, outside any penal procedure, to authorise the retention of radicalised people in centres designed for that effect,” the Council of State ruled.

The simple fact of being on the “fiche S” list provides no grounds for arrest or deportation.

The prime minister at the time, Manuel Valls, said there was no question of creating a “French Guantanamo”.

Even if France were to change its Constitution to allow internment, human rights campaigners believe such a move would put it in conflict with the European Court of Human Rights.

What do supporters of the system say?

Supporters of the “fiche S” system highlight its value in terms of intelligence. Some argue that to place suspects in detention would be counterproductive, as this would prevent investigators from tracking terrorist networks. Far better, they argue, is to keep them at large in order to monitor their activities.

Identity checks and border controls help the movements of people on the list to be registered. However, resources and practical considerations rule out systematic surveillance.

French police argue that the system is efficient, despite the occurrence of attacks committed by “fiche S” suspects. By not arresting people as soon as they are considered suspects, the authorities are able to dismantle networks and foil terrorist plots.

According to the French Centre for the Analysis of Terrorism, 60% of those who have carried out the wave of attacks to hit the country since 2014 were not on any list.

“Zero risk does not exist and those who claim that measures pulled out of a hat would be enough to solve the problem, they’re lying,” said French government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux.