France tells US that its spying is ‘unacceptable between friends’

Government in Paris eager to avoid a confrontation with Washington

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius welcomes US secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday at the foreign affairs ministry in Paris. Photograph: Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius welcomes US secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday at the foreign affairs ministry in Paris. Photograph: Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

Tue, Oct 22, 2013, 19:51

After a day of bluster and indignation over the scale of US spying on French communications, the government today appeared eager to avoid a confrontation with Washington.

Over a breakfast meeting at the Quai d’Orsay on Tuesday, foreign minister Laurent Fabius told US secretary of state John Kerry that the espionage revealed by Le Monde, based on National Security Agency (NSA) documents, was “unacceptable between friends and allies”.

France ranks third among European allies whom the US spies upon, after Germany and the UK, though data collection in Britain is done with the government’s co-operation.

The government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem told France 2 television that it was “up to foreign minister Fabius to decide what line we take, but I don’t think there is any need for an escalation. We have to have a respectful relationship between allies. Our confidence in that has been hit, but it is after all a very close, individual relationship”.

In a telephone conversation at midnight Paris time on Monday night, President Francois Hollande had told President Barack Obama of his “profound reprobation regarding these practices,” the Élysée said.

The US contested none of the details published by Le Monde, though Mr Obama told Mr Hollande that some “recent disclosures in the press... distorted our activities”. The newspaper revealed that more than 70 million French telephone calls were intercepted in one month alone last winter.

The White House said the US “has begun to review the way that we gather intelligence, so that we properly balance the legitimate security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share.”

French commentators harboured no illusions that the US will change. “Let’s be honest; we listen too,” the former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner told France Info radio station. “Everybody listens to everybody. We just don’t have the means the US does, which makes us jealous.”

The US spends the equivalent of €55 billion on 16 intelligence agencies annually, said Jean-Jacques Urvoas, the socialist president of the commission on laws in the National Assembly. France spends €10 billion on six intelligence services.

The French General Directorate for External Security does the same kind of data collection as the NSA, without legal authority.

In its continuing series on the NSA, Le Monde reported on Tuesday that, according to a top secret NSA memo in 2010, US intelligence spied on the French diplomatic missions to the UN, codenamed “Blackfoot,” and Washington, codenamed “Wabash”.

The NSA used its “Genie” programme of remote computer implants to infiltrate computers in the French missions. The Washington Post reported that “Genie” will have 85,000 such implants siphoning data from computers around the world by the end of this year.

In August 2010, the NSA reported that electronic espionage against the French played a key role in securing more severe sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council that June. Susan Rice, then US ambassador to the UN, said the NSA “revealed positions on sanctions that gave us a leg up in negotiations.”