PARIS — As President-elect Barack Obama prepares to revamp American counter-terrorism programs and close down the Bush administration's controversial prison camps at GuantĂ¡namo Bay, the incoming Democratic leader could find a few building blocks in what France calls its "fight against terror."
Relying on extensive intelligence, far-reaching domestic terrorism laws and close coordination with the United States, France has established an efficient strategy that's won public support and begrudging respect even from critics, who argue that Paris is rounding up too many people and risking a Muslim backlash.
"We don't agree with the concept of 'war on terror,' " said Jean-Louis Bruguiere, who served as France's best-known counter-terrorism judge for more than 20 years and helped capture the infamous terrorist Carlos the Jackal in 1994.
"We call it the fight against terror," said Bruguiere, who's now helping the European Union examine terrorist financing. "It's not a war. A war implies the use of military forces and we can't use military forces inside the country, so it's necessary to use other, nonmilitary means."
The biggest lesson the United States can learn from France is to build broad public support for a more open counter-terrorism strategy, said Jeremy Shapiro, a fellow at the Brookings Institution research center who specializes in Europe and national-security issues.
By denying suspects their day in court and having a network of secret prisons, the Bush administration provoked public skepticism, Shapiro said.
"It's very shortsighted when you fail to generate a societal consensus for what is a very real and long-term problem," he said. "The problem isn't rendition itself, it's . . . doing these things by executive fiat. Rendition, if well-supervised, could be a useful tool."
Supporters of the French approach note that while neighboring Spain and England have sustained deadly terrorist attacks in recent years, France so far has been immune.
The French model relies on sophisticated intelligence cooperation and broad laws that allow the police to imprison suspects with only tangential terrorist ties.
Even as American hawks were denouncing France in 2003 for its opposition to invading Iraq — the House of Representatives changed its lunchroom menus to offer "freedom fries" — intelligence officials in Paris were quietly working with their U.S. counterparts on a secret counter-terrorism program.
The project came to light when The Washington Post revealed details in 2005. The CIA-backed center in Paris collects, distills and transforms information into clandestine counter-terrorism operations. Alliance Base, as it's called, is credited with orchestrating the 2003 arrest of Christian Ganczarski, a German convert to Islam who's awaiting trial in France as an alleged mastermind, along with al Qaeda leader Khalid Sheik Mohammed, of a 2002 synagogue bombing in Tunisia that killed 21 people, including two French citizens.
Ganczarski attorney Sebastien Bono contends that the case against his client is based on thin evidence and intelligence that the government hasn't shared with him.
Bono said the spark for the arrest was a taped, 30-second call in which the bomber in Tunisia simply asked Ganczarski to pray for him and then hung up.