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Cool relations

John Laurenson, Paris
October 23, 2013

French anger at American spy revelations is set to cast a shadow over talks on the future of Syria while French courts decide if they have enough information to launch legal proceedings against the NSA and FBI.

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with French President Francois Hollande as they meet in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington May 18, 2012. (Photo:REUTERS/Eric Feferberg/Pool )

Fifteen years ago an American electronics firm called Raytheon was the surprise winner of a contract to equip the Amazon basin with an electronic network. The business was thought to have been a shoo-in for French company Thompson. The French were certain they had the best product and the best price.

What they didn't know was that the Americans had been using their Echelon surveillance system to listen in to the communications between Thompson's negotiators in Brazil and its Paris HQ.

The story is related by the former head of the DGSE (French intelligence) Alain Juillet who now heads the Company Security Directors' Club and the Economic Intelligence Academy.

Surprised at the scale of the 'pillage'

Juillet has his nose close to the problem. For him, the idea that allies spy on each other is nothing new. Nor that the USA uses its formidable lead in the sphere of communications technology to spy more than anybody else. But even he says he is surprised by the scale of the "pillage" revealed by Le Monde newspaper.

In new information supplied by Edward Snowden, the former consultant of America's NSA (National Security Agency) reveals, for example, that in a single month (10 December 2012 to 8 January 2013) the agency intercepted over 70 million French communications.

France responded to the revelations by hauling the American ambassador Charles Rivkin in to the Foreign Ministry to provide an explanation. The exchange with Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius's chief advisor Alexandre Ziegler was reported to have been "direct" and "quite cold".

Interior Minister Manuel Valls said "If a friendly country, an ally, is spying on France and other European countries, that is completely unacceptable." In order to reassure the French, Barack Obama called Francois Hollande on Monday. He told him some of the information about American spy activities had been "deformed".

France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius speaks during a press meeting at the Quai d' Orsay, in Paris Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013. (Photo: AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius is said to have hosted a 'cold' exchange with the US ambassador to ParisImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo

Cooling relations

The French president told his US counterpart of his "profound reprobation”. The details supplied by Edward Snowdon, now in exile in Moscow, show that the NSA's spying goes far further than anti-terrorism. The agency, he says, is sifting through vast quantities of communications between business leaders, journalists, politicians and civil servants.

Asked by the Figaro newspaper how business people, for example, could avoid the gaze of the American Big Brother, Economic Intelligence Academy president Alain Juillet said business people have long been extraordinarily naïve.

They know they're in a hyper-competitive world and yet "too many of our business leaders still send sensitive information via email from un-secured computers without imagining that someone might be reading [this material] at a distance," he said.

Juillet says that only last month the Prime Minister's office had to tell ministerial advisors to make sure top civil servants were using mobile phone technology that enabled them to encrypt confidential conversations. This, says Juillet, was thanks to Edward Snowden. "Without him no-one would have known," officially at least. The chill in relations because of American spying comes at a delicate moment in Franco-American relations.

French President Francois Hollande (C), U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (2ndR), British Foreign Secretary William Hague (2ndL) and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (R) pose upon their arrival at the Elysee Palace prior to a meeting on Syria conflict in Paris September 16, 2013. (Photo: REUTERS/Michel Euler/Pool)
Will cooling relations affect forthcoming talks on Syria?Image: Reuters

Enough information to prosecute?

France was embarrassed by Barack Obama's back-down from punishing Bashir El-Assad militarily for using chemical weapons. The French were also caught out by Washington's sudden change of position over the Iranian nuclear program, when Obama jettisoned what had hitherto been a common policy of absolute refusal to allow Teheran to have the bomb.

This is, therefore, a diplomatic crisis, which may even have legal consequences. The International Human Rights Federation and the Human Rights League, both based in Paris, have filed a formal complaint for the "illegal collection of personal data," "non-respect of personal privacy" and "violation of secret correspondence." French investigators are now trying to establish whether there is sufficient evidence to launch legal proceedings that would bring the NSA and the FBI to justice.