Anger but no surprise as new leaks trigger France-US spying row
PARIS - Embarrassed by leaked conversations of three successive French presidents and angered by new evidence of uninhibited American spying, France demanded answers Wednesday from the Obama administration and called for an intelligence "code of conduct" between allies.
France's foreign minister summoned the US ambassador to respond to the WikiLeaks revelations, as French eyes fixed on the top floor of the US Embassy after reports that trompe l'oeil windows there concealed a nest of NSA surveillance equipment just around the corner from the presidential Elysee palace.
"Commitments were made by our American allies. They must be firmly recalled and strictly respected," Prime Minister Manuel Valls said. "Being loyal doesn't mean falling into line."
French President Francois Hollande spoke by telephone with President Barack Obama Wednesday and Obama reiterated promises to stop spying tactics considered "unacceptable between allies," Hollande said. Obama made a similar pledge after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the agency's surveillance powers in 2013.
If not a surprise, the revelations put both countries in something of a quandary.
France's counter-espionage capabilities were called into question at the highest level. The United States, meanwhile, was shown not only to be eavesdropping on private conversations of its closest allies but also to be unable to keep its own secrets.
"The rule in espionage — even between allies — is that everything is allowed, as long as it's not discovered," Arnaud Danjean, a former analyst for France's spy agency and currently a lawmaker in the European Parliament, told France-Info radio. "The Americans have been caught with their hand in the jam jar a little too often, and this discredits them."
The French aren't denying the need for good intelligence — they have long relied on US intel cooperation to fight terrorism for example, and are trying to beef up their own capabilities, too.
The release of the spying revelations appeared to be timed to coincide with a final vote Wednesday in the French Parliament on a bill allowing broad new surveillance powers, in particular to counter threats of French extremists linked to foreign jihad.
Hollande, calling the US spying an "unacceptable" security breach, convened two emergency meetings as a result of the disclosures about the NSA's spying. The first was with France's top security officials, the second with leading legislators — many of whom have already voted for the new surveillance measure.
The documents appear to capture top French officials in Paris between 2006 and 2012 talking candidly about Greece's economy, relations with Germany, and American spying on allies.
The top floor of the U.S. Embassy, visible from France's presidential Elysee Palace, reportedly was filled with spying equipment hidden behind carefully painted windows, according to the Liberation newspaper, which partnered with WikiLeaks and the website Mediapart on the documents.
US Ambassador Jane Hartley was summoned to the French Foreign Ministry. Hollande is also sending his top intelligence coordinator to the U.S. shortly, to ensure that promises made after earlier NSA spying revelations in 2013 and 2014 have been kept, the spokesman said.
Valls said the US must do everything it can, and quickly, to "repair the damage" to US-French relations from the revelations, which he called "a very serious violation of the spirit of trust" between the allies.
"If the fact of the revelations today does not constitute a real surprise for anyone, that in no way lessens the emotion and the anger. They are legitimate. France will not tolerate any action threatening its security and fundamental interests," he said.
Government spokesman Stephane Le Foll told reporters "France does not listen in on its allies." He added, "we reminded all (government) ministers to be vigilant in their conversations."
The US Embassy had no comment on the WikiLeaks revelations.
US National Security Council spokesman Ned Price released a statement Tuesday evening saying the US is "not targeting and will not target the communications of President Hollande."
Price did not address claims that the US had previously eavesdropped on Hollande or his predecessors, Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac.
Two of the cables — dealing with then-President Sarkozy and Chirac, his predecessor — were marked "USA, AUS, CAN, GBR, NZL" suggesting that the material was meant to be shared with Britain, Canada and other members of the so-called Five Eyes intelligence alliance.
The disclosures, which emerged late Tuesday, mean that France has joined Germany on the list of US allies targeted by the NSA.
An aide to Sarkozy said that the former president considers these methods unacceptable. There was no immediate comment from Chirac.
As the lower house of parliament prepared to vote Wednesday on the new surveillance measures, the French government again denied accusations that it wants massive NSA-style powers.
"I will not let it be said that this law could call into question our liberties and that our practices will be those that we condemn today," Valls said.
Le Foll, who was heading Wednesday to Washington on a previously scheduled trip, said it wasn't a diplomatic rupture, riffing that France was sending not an aircraft carrier to the US but a replica of the Hermione, the ship that carried General Marquis de Lafayette from France to America in 1780 to offer help in the Revolution.
But, he added, "when you see this between allied countries it's unacceptable and, I would add, incomprehensible."