FRENCH POLICE ROUNDED up 10 people in their second country-wide sweep in several days today, leading to criticism that President Nicolas Sarkozy is ramping up raids to win votes in a tight election.
The arrests are part of a high-profile crackdown on radical Islamists in the wake of attacks on soldiers and a Jewish school. They were carried out as part of a preliminary investigation opened Monday into terror-linked activity in France, a judicial official said.
Another official close to the investigation said the 10 were suspected of links to Islamist websites and of threatening violence in online forums. Some of them may have been trying to attend jihadist training camps along the Afghan-Pakistan border, he added.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity, citing policy.
The operation was led by France’s counterespionage agency, DCRI, and targeted people authorities feared could turn to action, instead of just issuing idle threats, according to the judicial official. Police seized computer hardware in the raids.
New focus on rooting out radical Islamists
The raids in five cities, mostly in southern France, were the second in several days and appeared to be part of a new focus on rooting out radical Islamists in France.
Sarkozy, who is facing a tough re-election, has promised to hunt down radicals and hold them to account or kick them out of the country. But he has come under criticism for using the raids and expulsions to further his campaign and for not doing enough to prevent the killing spree last month in and around Toulouse that left seven dead.
On Tuesday, preliminary charges were filed against 13 people who were picked up in a sweep last week, all members of a banned group, Forsane Alizza, or Knights of Pride. Nine of them were jailed. The four others were released but must report to officials.
Some of those charged were reportedly calling for Muslim Sharia law to be implemented in France.
The second official emphasised that those arrested Wednesday were not linked to Forsane Alizza or to the Toulouse attacks.
The raids represent the increased focus in France on homegrown radicals. Last month’s attacks on French paratroopers and the Jewish school have been blamed on Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old Frenchman of Algerian origin who claimed to have received weapons training during trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
France expelled a foreign radical imam and a radical Islamist militant earlier this week, sending them to their homelands. Others are in line to be forced out of France.
‘Zero tolerance’ policy on hate rhetoric and racialism
Sarkozy on Tuesday declared a “zero tolerance” policy for hate speech and radical ideologies at odds with French values and for those who use their role as preachers to do so.
His administration and police came under criticism after the Toulouse killing spree for not stopping the perpetrator sooner since they knew he traveled to Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal area of Waziristan.
Police had Merah under surveillance after his return, but officials have said they couldn’t arrest him.
In light of the criticism, a parliamentary delegation held a hearing Wednesday on the role and organisation of France’s intelligence forces.
The delegation’s work is considered top secret and an unusual news conference scheduled to follow the hearing was abruptly canceled.
Sarkozy’s opponents have also criticised the timing of the recent high-profile operations against suspected radicals.
Francois Hollande, who is leading most polls in the April and May elections, said the president was trying to make up for earlier intelligence failures.
“What’s surprising is why do this after a terrorist attack that has, it’s true, profoundly affected us,” Hollande said on RTL radio, reacting to Wednesday’s raids. “I’m not questioning all that’s being done. I’m simply saying that we should have maybe done more before.”
Interior Minister Claude Gueant responded to the barbs by saying that the raids would continue whenever there was sufficient evidence — and that it was the judiciary that was driving these investigations.
“The pressure on radical Islamists and the threat they pose will not let up,” he told iTele news channel.