As France Wrestles With Pandemic, a Phone-Tracking Proposal Stokes Controversy

By Fayçal Benhassain | April 8, 2020 | 7:45pm EDT
A woman in locked-down Paris checks her mobile phone. (Photo by Philippe Lopez/AFP via Getty Images)
A woman in locked-down Paris checks her mobile phone. (Photo by Philippe Lopez/AFP via Getty Images)

Paris ( – As governments look for effective ways to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, a French proposal to use tracking to signal to smartphones’ owners that they are near an infected person has sparked controversy.

Also stoking comment here, French President Emmanuel Macron visited a Paris suburb on Tuesday and greeted a crowd of people not wearing masks or other protective gear.

National Rally president Marine Le Pen was among those who criticized Macron, whose government is also under fire over a decision not to make wearing a mask while outside mandatory.

“Residents gathered without any respect for confinement or social distancing with the President of the Republic,” Le Pen tweeted. “This is absolutely shocking.”

Benjamin Cauchy, a former Yellow Vest protest leader and now spokesman for the right-wing party France Arise, called the incident both a health hazard and a political error.

French people remain puzzled over the issue of wearing masks outside, something the government first opposed but now encourages.

Health authorities have varying positions on the matter in relation to the COVID-19 disease. The World Health Organization says healthy people do not need to wear masks or cloth face coverings unless caring for an infected person.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends wearing cloth face coverings (not medical masks) in public, especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.

France continues to be the third worst-affected country in Europe, after Italy and Spain. As of late Wednesday, it was reporting almost 114,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 10,869 deaths.

The phone-tracking proposal, known formally as “Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing,” is being considered by France and several other countries, as a way to help curb the spread of the disease.

Minister of Health Olivier Véran explained to Le Monde that a mobile app called StopCovid, using geolocation and Bluetooth technology, “can identify individuals who have been in contact with person infected with the coronavirus.”

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said on France 2 television that if the tool “makes it possible to fight against the virus and if it respects our individual freedoms,” it will be employed.

“All available intelligence is necessary in this crisis,” he said. “Tracking is one of the solutions that have been chosen by some countries, so we have chosen to work in conjunction with them to look at these solutions.”

But Jean-Louis Mélenchon, head of the leftist Rebellious France movement, told Europe 1 radio that the proposed tracking “would be a disaster from the point of view of individual freedoms.”

Even some members of  Republic In Motion, Macron’s movement, oppose the idea, with some threatening to leave the party if the tracking system is used.

“It would be unjustified to give in to the pressures of those who wish to further infringe on our individual freedoms by using personal data of our citizens,” Republic in Motion lawmaker Stéphane Séjourné – a former political advisor to Macron – told a daily newspaper.

Pierrre Person, the second most senior member of Macron’s party in the lower chamber, called the tracking proposal “a red line that could jeopardize my belonging to the majority.”

Amnesty International France advocacy officer Anne-Sophie Simpere said specific rules would be needed from the outset, including people’s consent.

“It’s an area in which tiny flaws can lead to human rights violations,” she said. “Once the systems are in place, governments can be tempted to keep them for another use.”


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