US phone taps on France – why Paris would prefer to keep a low profile

The revelations that the United States has been tapping the phones of presidents and others senior figures in the French state have provoked a major controversy. Politicians from all parties queued up on Wednesday morning to denounce the spying, revealed in leaked documents obtained by WikiLeaks and published by Mediapart and Libération. President François Hollande, himself revealed to be the target of phone taps in 2012, called a meeting of the government’s defence committee and met a delegation of 20 Parliamentarians at lunchtime to discuss the spying crisis. The Elysée meanwhile issued a statement describing the reported spying as “unacceptable”. But the spying will have come as no great surprise to the authorities in Paris who have known about or suspected such espionage for years. But France has never previously made a major public fuss about the issue for the simple reason that it, too, is part of a vast network involving exchanges of information between intelligence services around the world. And because it, too, cheerfully snoops on its friends. Moreover, the revelations came on the eve of the final vote on the government’s new and highly-controversial snooping legislation. Lénaïg Bredoux and Mathieu Magnaudeix report.

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The news that three French presidents have been eavesdropped by the Americans, with at least one of them, Nicolas Sarkozy, having his mobile phone calls intercepted, has unleashed a storm of protests and controversy. In a tough statement the Elysée itself described the actions as “unacceptable” and added: “France, which has reinforced its control and protection measures, will not tolerate any scheming that threatens its security and the protection of its interests.” Meanwhile politicians of all hues lined up to denounce the “scandalous” spying on France, as one senior figure put it.

Yet after the initial and inevitable public outcry, the reaction from the authorities in Paris to the revelations by Mediapart and Libération, working with Wikileaks, are likely to be more measured. First of all, Paris has known for some time that key figures in the government and state apparatus are eavesdropped by the Americans. But France has never really protested for the simple reason that its own secret services work with the American intelligence agencies and also spy on others, including “friendly” powers.

Another reason for potential reticence by the French authorities is that the revelations came on the eve of the scheduled final Parliamentary vote on the government's new snooping legislation, the controversial surveillance law or loi renseignement. Though the internet community, civil liberties groups and a handful of politicians have strongly opposed this measure, which hands wide-ranging surveillance powers to the French intelligence services, it has so far been backed by an overwhelming majority of French MPs and senators.

When contacted by Mediapart on the evening of Tuesday June 23rd, the Elysée initially declined to comment, before issuing its statement on Wednesday morning. However, sources on Tuesday did note that ahead of the meeting between François Hollande and American president Barack Obama in Washington on February 11th, 2014, and then during the meeting itself, there was an “undertaking to no longer carry out indiscriminate eavesdropping of the state services of an allied country”.

At that time, in early 2014, the French and American presidents were doing their best to close down the controversy caused by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations the previous summer. These disclosures had shown not only the vast scale of US spying on the internet around the world, but also that the NSA had been eavesdropping on European institutions and world leaders. Most devastating of all was the news that the mobile phones of German chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff had been tapped.

In response to those claims France's prime minister at the time, Jean-Marc Ayrault, said he was “deeply shocked”. The then-interior minister Manuel Valls who is now the prime minister, attacked what he called “shocking” revelations and called for explanations from Washington. And the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, summoned the American ambassador in France to his office to make clear the French government’s concerns and to ask for explanations over the affair. But in fact the American “explanations” never came and France did not continue to make a public fuss over the issue

“Following … Snowden's revelations President Obama and myself clarified matters relating to the past. Then we worked on a form of cooperation that can allow us to fight against terrorism while at the same time respecting principles. And we are making progress on this cooperation. Mutual trust has been restored,” said François Hollande during a joint press conference with his American counterpart on February 11th, 2014.

President Obama himself said: “What I’ve also said, both publicly and privately ... is that we are committed to making sure that we are protecting and concerned about the privacy rights not just of Americans, not just of our own citizens, but of people around the world as well. That's a commitment, by the way, that's fairly unprecedented in terms of any country’s intelligence operations.”

He added: “We do remain concerned, as France is and as most of the EU is, with very specific potential terrorist networks that could attack us and kill innocent people. And we’re going to have to continue to be robust in pursuit of those specific leads and concerns, but we have to do it in a way that is compatible with the privacy rights that people in France rightly expect just like they do here in the United States.”

Conférence de presse conjointe de François Hollande et Barack Obama #PRUSA © Présidence de la République

In fact it had been clear since the summer of 2013 that the French authorities were being spied on. German publication Der Spiegel revealed that France was, along with China, Russia, Iran, Germany, Japan, Italy and Spain, on a secret list of “priority targets” for the NSA. These claims were confirmed a few months later by The New York Times. The German weekly also said that the NSA had gained access to the secure computer network at Quai d'Orsay, the headquarters of the French foreign ministry in Paris, and was spying on French diplomats in Washington and elsewhere in the United States.

Le Monde even claimed that France had possession of “tangible evidence that its interests are targeted daily”: over 30 days from December 10th, 2012 to January 8th, 2013, the NSA carried out 70.3 million recordings of telephone data, meaning connection details, text messages and conversations. The same newspaper said that France asked for the NSA to explain its actions after it suspected the agency of carrying out a cyber-espionage operation against the French presidency between the two rounds of voting in the French presidential elections in May 2012.

In Germany the media there has confirmed in the past few weeks that the US has been spying on French leaders. After the Snowden affair a Parliamentary committee of inquiry was set up in Germany to look into the actions of the NSA, and this has shown the collusion between the American agency and the German intelligence agency the BND. Its investigation has also shown that a listening station on an American base in Bavaria has been used to snoop on European leaders and senior figures. These figures include officials at the French foreign ministry and the Elysée, and “French politicians”. Yet in the face of all these past revelations the French government has always shown great caution in its reaction.

'We're not on a level playing field'

Edward Snowden © Reuters Edward Snowden © Reuters

It is true that soon after the Snowden affair broke President François Hollande threatened to suspend talks with the Americans over the US-EU transatlantic trade agreement. “We can have negotiations or transactions once we have obtained guarantees,” he told journalists, calling for “this type of behaviour” to stop “immediately”. This protest for the cameras was, however, swiftly denied by his entourage. “We have to react to the spying revelations because there are press articles. But our room for manoeuvre is very narrow. We're not on a level playing field,” explained one diplomat to Mediapart.

At the time France's socialist government, apparently fearing American reprisals, clearly rejected allowing Snowden to come to France as some intellectuals had suggested. Manuel Valls in particular was firmly opposed to the idea in the name of Franco-American “friendship”. A sign of the nervousness in the corridors of power at the time was the diplomatic incident caused by the decision to stop the plane carrying Bolivian president Evo Morales from flying over France, for fear that it might be carrying the American whistleblower on board.

When in April this year it was confirmed that senior French figures had indeed been spied on by Germany's BND, the French foreign ministry and the Elysée both maintained complete radio silence on the subject. Off the record some French officials had simply let it be known that there had been frank but discreet discussions between Paris and Berlin over the issue. By way of contrast Austria, whose leaders had also been eavesdropped by the BND, chose to make an official protest and even lodged a formal legal complaint.

However, while the French may have known that the German services worked with the NSA, they did not imagine that the BND were operating in effect simply as subcontractors for the American agency. “That's on a different level,” said a source close to the French secret services. “All the more so given that we have an agreement with the BND on sharing intelligence that works well.”

Yet after the revelations by Mediapart and Libération, working in conjunction with WikiLeaks, the French authorities can no longer hide from the issue: three heads of state, the most senior figures in the country, have been spied on for years. Even so, it is quite possible that France's protests and 'polite' condemnations today will not be followed up with concrete action in the future. For one thing France does not want to hurt the Americans, and for another it wants to avoid possible reprisals.

Indeed, as the Snowden leaks showed, France itself spies on other countries even if its resources are limited compared with those of the NSA. “The DGSE [editor's note, the external intelligence agency the Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure] carries out illegal and clandestine actions outside our borders. But unlike the Americans we don't like to boast about it. And the DGSE doesn't have the same means,” says a source close to the French intelligence services. “We've all done wrong things,” says another source. “We carry out targeted operations.”

In 2013 The Guardian revealed that the French secret services had spied on the American Department of State. They were also suspected by the secret services in Canada of having put spy software called 'Babar' – after the cartoon character - on the Canadians' computer networks. Meanwhile the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung revealed the existence of an agreement on information exchange and cooperation, dubbed 'Lustre', between France and the so-called 'Five Eyes' – the United States, Greta Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – who regularly swap massive amounts of data between their intelligence services. The terms of this agreement are not yet known.

On a broader level France continues to intercept electronic signals from, for example, the underwater cables that come from the Middle East and Africa, which are areas very poorly covered by American intelligence. Such data can then be swapped with the NSA or other agencies for intelligence that interests France. “The services know perfectly well that all countries, even if they cooperate in the fight against terrorism, spy on allies,” said the former boss of the domestic intelligence service DCRI (now the Direction générale de la sécurité intérieure or DGSI), Bernard Squarcini, a close ally of Nicolas Sarkozy, in 2013.

The latest episodes involving France's own surveillance law, the loi renseignement, which was due to receive its final Parliamentary vote of approval on Wednesday June 24th, is further proof of how spying on foreign countries and foreign nationals are common practice. The socialist MP Jean-Jacques Urvoas, who is piloting the legislation through the National Assembly, discreetly slipped in an amendment which would have given the French secret services virtually unfettered ability to spy on people in France who are “not French or a person habitually resident on French soil”. In other words, carte blanche to spy on diplomats and foreign journalists and business people. After an outcry the prime minister’s office asked for the amendment to be withdrawn. Such practices may exist, but the authorities do not want people knowing about them.

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  • The French version of this article can be found here.


English version by Michael Streeter

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