Nicolas Sarkozy's decision on Monday to ban hate-preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi from entering France was a sensible move. After the killing of Jewish children by Toulouse massacrist Mohammed Merah, a man so driven by anti-Semitism, it would have been unthinkable to welcome Qaradawi - a man who has previously published a fatwa endorsing the murder of Jewish civilians in Israel.
Sadly, not all of Sarkozy's responses to Merah's terrorist attacks have been as well thought through. For example, his proposals announced last week to punish those who repeatedly browse Islamist websites or travel abroad for indoctrination threaten to undermine his previous success in balancing national security and civil liberties.
Radicalisation and indoctrination - whether sought online or abroad - act as the 'conveyer belt' that often leads individuals towards committing terrorist acts. However, to impose sweeping laws on those that visit the websites - and Sarkozy has threatened to send them to prison - not only smothers free expression; it broadens the definition of terrorism to extent that it becomes meaningless, therefore skewering efforts to effectively prevent it. Sarkozy could expect to see this new legislation bringing in a sharp increase of arrests and charges but few convictions while those already radicalised who might dodge these websites could slip under the radar.
While the French intelligence services had identified and interviewed Merah on several occasions, the DCRI failed to effectively use the resources available to prevent him from acting. Therefore, if this recent case shows Sarkozy anything, it's that the answer is not broadening the search for extremists in order to identify potential threats - Merah became known to the French security services in 2010. Instead Sarkozy needs to adopt an effective monitoring system with tighter surveillance of potential terrorists, in order to prevent them from going on to commit acts deserving of harsh punishment.
Sarkozy has also failed to consider those visiting the websites who are merely curious or even actively trying to counter extremism. For example, having the law treat everyone who views extremist online material as "trainee terrorists and their supporters" would make it impossible for those of us who work in, or indeed study, counterterrorism to do our jobs properly. Surely it would be a better use of the DCRI's resources and time in tracking down and punishing those that encourage and glorify terrorism, rather than those they are reaching out to? Just look at the UK's successful convictions of those such as Younes Tsouli, Tariq al-Daour and Waseem Mughal for running jihadist websites and chat forums. The conviction of Tsouli in November 2005 was the first under British Law for inciting terrorism over the internet.
Sarkozy's proposals echo Tony Blair's reaction to the 7/7 London bombings. Blair was quick to assure a grieving and angry Britain that "the rules of the game are changing". This speech marked a significant turning point and his proposed 12 radical new measures dramatically altered the landscape of counterterrorism in Britain. Some proved extremely effective, such as excluding foreigners who encourage terrorism and arresting those who glorify terrorism. Others though were poorly thought out, such as using the Muslim Council of Britain as the single voice of British Muslims and attempts to tighten civil liberties by promising to extend the length of time for which terror suspects could be held without trials to 90 days. Blair's pledge to extend the use of control orders ended in failure after it was ruled as a breach of human rights laws, and his vow to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir came to nothing.
Sarkozy opened the announcement of his new proposals with "don't tell me it's not possible." He has successfully batted away taunts from the far-Right blaming immigration for the recent violence, and criticism from the left that his crackdown on terrorism is an attack on Islam. While his commitment to fighting terrorism must continue, the nature of his heavy-handed swipes at large chunks of society and its freedoms threatens to create more problems than it solves.
Up until now, Sarkozy has successfully maintained a delicate balancing act between the protection of individual civil liberties and running one the most advanced counter-terrorism programmes in Europe, if not the world.
Rather than pandering to populism in the run up to the French elections, Sarkozy should spend the time he has before his next session starts to think carefully about his next steps. His banning of Qaradawi showed movement in the right direction, and he should continue to make clean, acute incisions such as this to manage the threat of fundamentalism.Suggest a correction