France upbraids US for spying on its leaders. Should it be throwing stones?

US intelligence intercepts released by Wikileaks appears to show US eavesdropping on French presidents over the past decade. But France has long been renowned for its own spying prowess, particularly for economic gains.  

Charles Platiau/Reuters
French President Francois Hollande attends a meeting the day after WikiLeaks revelations of US spying on French presidents on Wednesday. France branded as unacceptable reported spying the United States on French senior officials and warned Paris would not tolerate actions that threaten its security.

France has summoned the US ambassador to explain a report that the US has spied upon at least three French presidents over the past decade, per several alleged National Security Agency intercepts released on Tuesday. The office of President François Hollande, one of the three, has condemned the report and upbraided France's longtime ally for not keeping its word. 

But while the NSA documents appear to show high-level espionage, France itself is well known for its practice of spying on allies, particularly in corporate and economic matters. 

The documents, released by WikiLeaks on Tuesday, indicate that the US has intercepted high-level communications inside the French government at least as far back as 2006. The reports include discussion of French policy on the possibility of a Greek exit from the eurozone in 2012, Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts in 2011, and the appointment of various UN officials in 2006. They even include a 2010 intercept detailing French complaints about US espionage against the French government. The documents indicate that the US listened in on the last three French presidents: Mr. Hollande, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Jacques Chirac.

President Hollande's office issued a statement that "France will not tolerate actions that threaten its security and the protection of its interests." The president's office added that "Commitments were made by the U.S. authorities. They need to be recalled and strictly respected."

Reuters reports that the US National Security Council responded that the US is not targeting Hollande's communications and will not do so in the future. It did not say whether the US had done so in the past, however.

Indeed, the revelations of the new intercepts are very much in keeping with reports from two years ago indicating the NSA was capturing large amount of metadata belonging to European citizens, and even spied on German Chancellor Angela Merkel (a preliminary German inquiry was recently shelved due to insufficient evidence.)

France and other European allies complained at the time that the US had overreached in the name of waging a global war against Islamic terrorist groups. 

But as multiple sources observed, France's complaints rang somewhat hollow, due to its own long history of espionage against allies – particularly corporate interests and business.

In 2011, Norway's Aftenposten newspaper released US diplomatic cables that claimed "French espionage is so widespread that the damages (it causes) the German economy are larger as a whole than those caused by China or Russia," the Australian Associated Press reported. A German corporate leader was cited as saying "France is the Empire of Evil in terms of technology theft, and Germany knows it."

In 1992, the Philadelphia Inquirer quoted a former CIA director as saying "The French are the most predatory service in the world now that the old Soviet Union is gone." The report noted that France was focused on "economic targets such as fiber-optic technology, marketing strategies and the numbers inside sealed bids for international business."

In 1991, Air France denounced a report that French intelligence had planted bugs in Air France jets to spy on corporate heads as they traveled, The New York Times wrote.

As Foreign Policy wrote in July 2013:

If you’ve been paying attention, you know that France is a proficient, notorious and unrepentant economic spy. "In economics, we are competitors, not allies," Pierre Marion, the former director of France’s equivalent of the CIA, once said. "America has the most technical information of relevance. It is easily accessible. So naturally your country will receive the most attention from the intelligence services." ...

The spying continues even today, according [to] a recent U.S. National Intelligence Estimate. The NIE declared France, alongside Russia and Israel, to be in a distant but respectable second place behind China in using cyberespionage for economic gain.

While the French reputation for spying does differ in type from the new US reports – corporate espionage vs. foreign policy spying – the approach to intelligence gathering is consistent. 

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