November 1, 2013 2:32 pm

France, a master at espionage, under few illusions on US spying

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FILE: NSA Chief Set To Step Down©Getty

General Keith Alexander

There is a joke in Paris that the Americans can listen to everything the French are saying, but the way French government works is so complicated they will never understand a thing.

This was recounted by a former senior diplomat this week as a way to put into context the ultimately ambivalent reaction by President François Hollande’s socialist government to the allegations swirling across the Atlantic of mass electronic spying on European governments and citizens by the US National Security Agency.

In public, Mr Hollande adopted a tough stance, calling the revelations “totally unacceptable” and telephoning President Barack Obama to complain. The official spokeswoman for his government, cabinet minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, this week disdainfully dismissed as “implausible” denials of mass surveillance by General Keith Alexander, head of the NSA.

But diplomats and officials say this reaction amounted to little more than political theatre. “Hollande delivered the minimum posturing and shadow boxing,” said one official. “He has not sought to manipulate this for some Anglo-Saxon bashing. He has not joined those seeking to use it to hold up the transatlantic trade talks [about which France is lukewarm].”

Nor has there been much public outrage in France over the issue, even within the ranks of Mr Hollande’s leftist supporters. “The French are rather cynical. They expect these things to be happening,” said the official.

Nicole Bricq, the trade minister, said there was “no point in whining” about spying allegations – instead France should improve its own intelligence gathering.

Mr Hollande called for a “code of conduct” to be hammered out between the US and European states on intelligence gathering, but specifically ruled out France seeking to have an enhanced relationship with Washington along the lines of the “five eyes” grouping made up of the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Much is explained on the French side by a shrewd understanding of US surveillance capabilities, established intelligence sharing with Washington, particularly on terrorism, and by France’s own determination to sustain its own considerable intelligence-gathering capacity.

In depth

US Security State

US security state

Analysis of revelations about the extent of the surveillance state in the US

“I don’t believe anyone in the business had any doubt that if [the Americans] wanted to do it, they could,” said the official.

A foreign diplomat in Paris said: “The French were probably aware of what had been going on. The ground rules are you use as much of what you have as much as you can and try not to miss any opportunities. That’s what all states do.”

In public at least, there has been no specific allegation that Mr Hollande’s mobile phone was tapped, unlike that of German chancellor Angela Merkel. But there are no illusions on the French side.

A lesson was learnt in 1994 when France lost out on a big aerospace contract for Airbus in Saudi Arabia to Boeing and McDonnell Douglas, apparently after a phone call by the then prime minister Edouard Balladur, in which he discussed the terms Airbus had offered, was intercepted by US intelligence.

And, according to an NSA document published this week by Le Monde newspaper, France suspected the US agency of being behind a sophisticated hacking attack on the Elysée Palace last year in the latter days of Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency.

We have a technical intelligence operation that we began to modernise in the 1980s and which is undoubtedly one of the best in the world

- Philippe Hayez, former deputy director of DGSE

France itself is no slouch at the spying game, played mainly through the DCRI internal intelligence agency, and the DGSE, its external counterpart. Le Monde reported recently that the DGSE itself has a mass telephone, email and internet interception operation.

“We have a technical intelligence operation that we began to modernise in the 1980s and which is undoubtedly one of the best in the world.” said Philippe Hayez, former deputy director of DGSE, in an interview with the newspaper.

“The DCRI is held in high esteem by the FBI and MI5 [the UK domestic intelligence service],” said the former diplomat. “I have heard the British say, we open our books to you because your people are very good and very reliable.”

Paris will probably seek to keep intelligence relations with the US on an even keel, in a spirit of mutual recognition that allies have always spied on allies. The episode could even lead to “great mutual understanding over sensitivities and needs”, the official said.

Nonetheless, the sheer scale of the alleged NSA activity may have sown a doubt. The former diplomat said they could prove “a drop of poison” in a relationship that has been undermined by the decline in US strategic interest in Europe.

“They do seem to be saying, buzz off: we have the technology, it is for your own good, so just shut up,” he said.

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