Riled by US spying report, Hollande could learn from Merkel's response

The French president responded with anger at the news the NSA had spied on him and other French presidents. But Angela Merkel's experience two years ago suggests why Hollande might want to tread carefully.

Christian Hartmann/Reuters
US President Barack Obama (l.), German Chancellor Angela Merkel (c.), and French President François Hollande wave to photographers before their first meeting in Kruen, Germany, earlier this month. A new intelligence leak says that the US spied on the past three French presidents, including Mr. Hollande – and Ms. Merkel's experience in a similar situation two years ago could inform how Hollande responds.

As public fury mounts in France over allegations that the US has spied on three French presidents, including the sitting one, French leaders might want to look to Germany as a cautionary tale.

When allegations spread in 2013 that the US had tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone, the German leader’s indignation was clear. Many remember, nearly two years later, that she said: “Spying among friends is never acceptable.” French President François Hollande took a similar page, calling the allegations that the National Security Agency has spied on his communication and that of his two predecessors an “unacceptable” security breach.

“This involves unacceptable acts that have already given rise to discussions between the United States and France,” he said in a statement.

But while Ms. Merkel's strong initial stance was lauded by Germans, nearly two years later those words have her in a tight spot.

Germany, like France, depends on American spying capability to protect itself from the threat of terrorism. Investigations and inquiries over the NSA revelations have only led to new accusations: most recently last month that Germany’s intelligence service was cooperating with the NSA to spy on other Europeans, including France.

“The problem for Merkel now is that it looks hypocritical,” says Stefan Heumann, the deputy program director of the “European Digital Agenda” at the Berlin think tank Foundation for a New Responsibility.

Germany also set out to reach a “no spy” agreement with the US, but recently, accusations have swirled that Merkel knew all along it wouldn’t be possible. “She presented it as if it were possible,” says Sergey Lagodinsky, head of the EU/North America department of the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Berlin. "There is a problem with credibility.”

Now, as Mr. Hollande addresses a public audience that is bound to be outraged by what is largely considered American arrogance in Europe, he will have to tread carefully to avoid the same predicament.

Mr. Lagodinsky says Hollande should be straightforward with the public about what France can realistically achieve from pushing back against American spying – as well as what it gains from it. He says Merkel did a good balancing job in terms of not driving a political rift with American leadership, even though the German populace has become deeply mistrustful of US intentions. “Especially in a situation of crisis both within Europe vis-à-vis Greece and an international situation vis-à-vis Russia, you cannot afford now a crisis in relations, neither with US nor Germany or others.”

The latest disclosures, by WikiLeaks, over NSA spying appeared late Tuesday in Liberation, the left-leaning French daily, and Mediapart. 

The timing appears to be intentional, as France’s lower house of parliament was expected to give final passage to a bill that gives France more power to spy. It was pushed through in the wake of France’s terrorist attack in January, and has been just as controversial as mass surveillance in the US has been. It’s been dubbed France’s “Patriot Act,” in reference to the US intelligence bill.

“Hollande is under a lot of pressure to do something like Merkel did, to show domestically that this is unacceptable.  … But since we know that the French intelligence service has extensive surveillance operations, a strong response from France would immediately raise questions about possible cooperation between France and the NSA and lead down a path that Hollande won’t want to go on,” Mr. Heumann says.

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