NSA revelations give 'Monsieur Kerry' a rockier road in France

A report highlighting vast US spying of French telecom data has made Secretary John Kerry's trip to Paris uncomfortable. But will US-French relations be affected?

Philippe Wojazer/AP/Pool
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius shakes hands with US Secretary of State John Kerry at the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Paris on Tuesday. US-French relations have proven rockier than expected during Mr. Kerry's tenure, thanks to NSA scandals and the Syrian civil war.

For a man once dubbed "Monsieur Kerry," US Secretary of State John Kerry has found the Franco-American relationship to be rockier terrain than he might have expected.

From tensions over intervention in Syria to threats that the French would derail trade talks before they even began, spats have flared in the nearly 8 months since he's been the US's chief diplomat. But nothing has weighed more heavily over his dealings with France than the ongoing spying allegations leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

The latest revelation, that the US has engaged in large-scale interception of French telecommunications, was splashed across France's paper of record, Le Monde, on Monday – the day Mr. Kerry arrived in Paris for talks on Syria and the Middle East – and spurred a strong rebuke from the French government.

But the harsh rhetoric won't likely impact a relationship that the US ambassador to France, Charles Rivkin – who was summoned to the French ministry over the allegations – described as “the best [it's been] in a generation.”

“There is certainly turbulence in the relationship, but it's fundamentally a good one,” says Steven Ekovich, who teaches American foreign policy at the American University of Paris and wrote a book on John Kerry in French in 2004 called “Qui est John Kerry?” “We're in a spat, but it's a kind of family spat. It will blow over.”

'A tough stance'

Kerry's French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, spoke out sharply against the NSA allegations, calling them “unacceptable.”

"We have extremely useful cooperation with the United States in the struggle against terrorism, but this cooperation does not justify everything,” Mr. Fabius, who met with Kerry this morning, said to reporters yesterday. "So we've asked the United States to provide clarifications, explanations, and justifications extremely quickly.”

Kerry reiterated that sentiment Monday night calling France one of America's “oldest allies.”

Mr. Ekovich says the French have to take a tough stance – as have other European and Latin American nations that have been targeted by NSA. “The French can't be seen as being the victims of a bully America.” But the key bilateral issues, such as Syria, Iran, and other matters of strategy and security won't change, he adds.

Le Monde's latest allegations involve 70.3 million pieces of telephone data recorded by the NSA in a little over a month's time, from December 2012 to January 2013. According to the paper, the individuals targeted span beyond terrorism suspects to business and political elites.

It's not the first time France has had harsh words for the US, as it has dealt with fallout from Mr. Snowden's ongoing leaks about US spying around the world. In July, when allegations of US spying specifically on Europe were revealed, days before the ambitious trade deal between the EU and the US called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) was getting underway, French President François Hollande went so far as to say the talks should be suspended (they were not).

The NSA has not been the only rough patch in Franco-American relations in the past half year. France threatened to take movies and digital media off the negotiating table as TTIP launched, to safeguard its domestic film production from Hollywood. Ultimately France relented.

President Hollande was also caught off guard after he threw his support behind intervention in Syria – only to see the US step down and leave him in a political bind since France was in no position to attack Syria alone.

'Monsieur Kerry'

All of these spats would impact any American Secretary of State, but having Kerry at the helm has likely helped weather the storm, says Ekovich. “There is still in general a favorable impression of the person, the man.”

His nickname “Monsieur Kerry” was actually an attack by rivals who were trying to paint the former US presidential candidate in 2004 as out of touch with everyday America, but on this side of the Atlantic, his bilingual French and French family ties have given him a cache that most American politicians don't enjoy in France.

Kerry, in Paris, had to field questions on the Le Monde allegations in a Monday night press conference. “France is one of our oldest allies in the world, and I have a very close working relationship with Laurent Fabius since the day I started this job on many issues, ranging from Syria to protecting the security of our citizens.”

But he added he would not discuss intelligence as a matter of policy. “Our goal is always to try to find the right balance between protecting the security and the privacy of our citizens. And this work is going to continue, as well as our very consultations with our friends here in France,” he said.

The revelations impacted beyond the two countries' chief diplomats, as President Obama and Hollande talked by phone on Monday. They "discussed recent disclosures in the press – some of which have distorted our activities and some of which raise legitimate questions for our friends and allies about how these capabilities are employed," the White House said in a statement.

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