UNITED STATES allegations that French intelligence services are involved in large scale spying operations against US companies are viewed here as an attempt by the Central Intelligence Agency to find new enemies.
The CIA's effort would presumably safeguard its budget from Congressional cuts despite the end of the cold war, the French officials charge.
While French officials admit privately that spying between industrialized countries is a fact of life, they say the Americans are focusing on Paris rather than on Bonn or Tokyo because the French make an easy target.
Some commentators have even argued that the US government is giving the French intelligence community more credit than it deserves.
"We have reached new heights of ridicule," remarked Gen. Bernard Nicolas, the spokesman for a group representing French aeronautic and space industries.
"They are using the pretext of espionage to make a jab at the Bourget Air Show," the general said.
The show, which opens June 11 outside of Paris at Le Bourget Airport where Charles Lindbergh landed, is the world's largest aviation exhibit. Major aircraft and defense companies display their latest wares.
The decision by Hughes Aircraft not to take part in this year's show after the CIA warned it and 48 other US companies they were targets of espionage operations by the French led to allegations in Paris that Washington was out to sabotage Le Bourget, a charge strongly denied by the American embassy here.
"The United States fully supports participation of US firms in the Paris Air Show," an embassy statement said. "More than 100 US firms, along with NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration, will participate in the USA National Pavilion. In addition, at least 100 other US firms will display their technology at other pavilions at the show."
The latest controversy over French spying in the US was set off by the publication in the American press last month of a purportedly secret French document that revealed details of a French spy network in America.
"It is an attack in due form from Washington," a French intelligence official said in reference to the document. "A low blow designed to resolve the problems at the top levels of the intelligence agency [CIA] and also a way of bringing up again an old disagreement."
The official was referring to the discovery three years ago that French agents had infiltrated IBM plants in the US. The matter was settled with a "gentlemen's agreement" that included a French pledge not to repeat the actions.
In the spring of 1991, however, US agents, tipped by an American firm, followed a group of six Frenchmen across the US. They were posing as engineers searching for better ways to protect nuclear energy installations. In fact, they were seeking information about the "invisible" Stealth plane, according to US officials.
"Their real mission and their contacts with French authorities were easily discovered," says Richard Heffernan, the head of a security company in Connecticut.
The French government denies any involvement in the matter, just as it denies that it had any connection with Marc Goldberg, a French citizen arrested in San Francisco in July 1990 and found guilty of stealing secret documents from a high-technology firm in Palo Alto, Calif.
US officials also suspect the French consul in Houston with attempting to uncover industrial secrets. The consul was photographed in May 1991 by US agents while he was searching through the garbage outside the homes of executives for high-technology companies. He claimed he was only trying to find material to fill a hole in his garden.
Recently crews for Air France, the national airline, have been accused of taking part in espionage missions.
"There have been cases implicating the French until as recently as last fall," Mr. Heffernan said.
But French officials say that the recent American attacks against their country are in fact just ploys by the US intelligence community which is searching for new enemies now that the Berlin Wall is down and the former Soviet Union has collapsed.
The French officials point out that the alleged French document detailing Paris's spy network in the US was leaked to the American media days before the US Army was to make a decision on a new training helicopter. The Army was to choose between a model built by a French-German consortium and Bell Helicopter, the US firm.
"In order to justify their intransigence in the economic war, the Americans are in the process of making themselves out to be the victims," says a French intelligence official.
"They are going to say that it is in self-defense that the CIA, with its tremendous resources, is getting involved in industrial espionage," the official says.