French Cabinet OKs new anti-terrorism measures

The conservative French government on Wednesday unveiled new counterterrorism measures to punish those who visit extremist websites or travel to weapons-training camps abroad, in the wake of deadly shootings by an suspected Islamic extremist in southern France last month.

The measures now go to Parliament, where it may face resistance from the Socialists, who say France's legal arsenal against terrorism is already strong enough and that the proposal is a campaign ploy to boost President Nicolas Sarkozy's chances at a second term.

Sarkozy's Cabinet gave its go-ahead to measures that would make it illegal to travel abroad to "indoctrination and weapons-training camps for terrorist ends" or to regularly visit websites that incite or praise deadly terrorism.

Sarkozy's government insists the measures are needed to fight the relatively new phenomenon of "lone wolf" terrorism by extremists who self-radicalize online via jihadist Web sites, and are hard for authorities to track.

The measures come amid the hyper-charged political atmosphere ahead of France's presidential and legislative elections in the coming weeks. Even the proposal's proponents admit that they may not be taken up before elections reshape the National Assembly in June.

The Socialists -- who could see gains in the elections -- oppose the measure, arguing that France just needs to apply its counterterrorism laws better.

"We would have liked to have passed these measures before the presidential election," said government spokeswoman Valerie Pecresse of the two-round election on April 22 and May 6.

Critics say the conservative Sarkozy, who is facing an uncertain re-election contest against poll front-runner and Socialist Francois Hollande, is trying to buff up his domestic security credentials ahead of the elections.

Sarkozy first laid out such proposals after alleged gunman Mohamed Merah killed three paratroopers, a rabbi and three Jewish children in three shootings over eight days in the southern cities of Toulouse and Montauban in March.

"The president has said many times that you govern until the very last day," said Justice Minister Michel Mercier.

Mercier said that while France's laws against terrorism -- considered by many experts as among the toughest in the western world -- are strong, they can always be improved, and need to adapt to new threats such as the lone wolf.

"There are not just networks, there are also terrorists who act alone, who train by themselves," Mercier told reporters after the Cabinet meeting. "So we're reinforcing our legislation."

Merah's shooting spree rocked France, which hadn't faced deadly radical Islamic terrorism since the mid-1990s. He claimed ties to Al Qaeda, though French authorities have expressed doubt about that.

The 23-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent, who had traveled to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and across the Middle East in recent years, died after a 32-hour standoff with police March 22.