France decries US spying as ‘unacceptable’

Politicians express indignation, real or feigned, at NSA intelligence gathering

French President François Hollande meets with parliamentarians at the Elysée Palace in Paris after revelations of US spying on French presidents. Photograph: Charles Platiau/AFP/Getty Images

French President François Hollande meets with parliamentarians at the Elysée Palace in Paris after revelations of US spying on French presidents. Photograph: Charles Platiau/AFP/Getty Images


French politicians yesterday vied to see who could make the most morally outraged statements about past spying by the US National Security Agency on French leaders.

On Tuesday night, Julian Assange, the founder of the WikiLeaks website, who released 250,000 US diplomatic cables in 2010, published five NSA documents based on surveillance of French officials’ telephones. The documents were also published by the investigative website Mediapart and Libération newspaper.

The former NSA employee Edward Snowden uncovered the global Prism communications surveillance programme in 2013. It included taps on the telephones of German chancellor Angela Merkel and the Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff.

But this is the first evidence that the NSA listened to the last three French presidents, as well as cabinet ministers, advisers, the switchboards of the agriculture and finance ministries and in-house telephones at the Elysée palace.

This mass collection of French telephone conversations occurred between 2006 and 2012, but may have started earlier and/or continued later. Ned Price, spokesman for the US National Security Council, said only that “We do not target and we will not target the communications of President [François] Hollande.”

Much of the wire-tapping is believed to be conducted from a joint CIA-NSA operation on the roof extension of the US Embassy on the Place de la Concorde, within a stone’s throw of the Elysée, National Assembly, ministries of the interior, justice and foreign affairs, and numerous other embassies. It is painted with trompe l’oeil windows and is reportedly covered with special material that absorbs electro-magnetic signals

An emergency meeting of Mr Hollande’s defence council yesterday morning called the spying “unacceptable” and warned that France “will not tolerate actions that endanger her security or the protection of her interests”. Mr Hollande later telephoned President Barack Obama for “an update on the principles that must govern relations between allies regarding intelligence matters”.

The US president “reiterated without ambiguity his firm commitment, made in November 2013 after the Snowden affair . . . to end the practices of the past . . . ” said an Elysée statement.

‘Detestable practice’

Laurent FabiusJane D Hartley

In the questions to the government session in the National Assembly, the socialist group leader, Bruno Le Roux, said left- and right-wing benches “condemn this detestable practice, which is an obvious attack on the sovereignty of France . . . When one has friends, one calls them; one doesn’t listen in.”

Prime minister Manuel Valls said there had been “anger and emotion” at the defence council in the morning. “These practices are not normal between democratic states who have long been allies,” he said. Although the news was “a surprise for no one”, it was a “grave violation of confidence” to listen in on allies.

Mr Valls said it was necessary to go beyond Mr Obama’s past commitments. He called for “a code of good conduct” that would “respect political sovereignty” in intelligence matters.

The newly released, top secret NSA documents do not reveal anything about President Jacques Chirac’s incipient Alzheimer’s, the financial scandals that dog President Nicolas Sarkozy – one of which involves phone taps by French, not US authorities – or President Hollande’s love life.

But they provide a trove of historic detail and observations. The last cable, dated May 22nd, 2012, confirms what a bad start Dr Merkel and Mr Hollande made after his election. At their first meeting, “Hollande found the chancellor fixated on the Fiscal Pact and above all on Greece, on which he claimed she had given up and was unwilling to budge”, the NSA reported. Already three years ago, fears of a “Grexit” were so intense that Mr Hollande ordered that a French meeting on the possible consequences be kept secret. He also fanned German press reports of a “red pact against Merkel” by receiving members of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) at the Elysée.

Disgruntled Sarkozy

White HousePatrick Ricard

Mr Valls told the National Assembly that “France does not put the communications of leaders of allied countries or European partners under surveillance.” So why has the US done so? The NSA has some 35,000 employees and an annual budget of €8.9 billion, François Heisbourg, president of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, told Libération. “They do it because they can.”