Spying on Les Présidents: The Impact on the U.S.-French Relationship
June 24, 2015
There are both short and long-term implications of recent press reports that the National Security Agency (NSA) tapped into the conversations of three French Presidents. In the short term, it is a great embarrassment for both sides. It is embarrassing for President Obama to receive an irate phone call from President Hollande on this sensitive issue and for the French intelligence chief to come to Washington to chastise his counterparts. It is equally embarrassing for the French intelligence services – one of the greatest intelligence bodies in the world – to know that their counter-intelligence measures were insufficient. But in the long-term, it is the growing anti-American sentiment that will have the most significant impact on the bilateral relationship, as has been the case in Germany since the 2013 NSA revelations. Case in point: Marine Le Pen, leader France’s far-right National Front, noted today that “The French must recognize that the United States, which is to say its government that we clearly distinguish from its people, are not a country that is an ally or a friend." Ouch.
To be clear, this particular leak was timed not to further stoke anti-Americanism (although it is a happy by-product for those groups who seek to foment it), but rather to stymie a vote today by the National Assembly to enhance intelligence surveillance methods in France - legislation that has been dubbed “the French Patriot Act”. It must also be made clear that nations spy on other nations, friend and foe alike. Every country must make a cost-benefit analysis of its espionage activities. Will the benefit of the information gleaned outweigh the cost of collection should it be revealed? This holds as true for the United States as for European countries, China, or Russia, to name a few. While it is understandable that the United States would have a strong interest in understanding what French President Chirac’s views were (as well as those of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder) during the very difficult 2003-2005 period in the run-up to and height of the Iraq War, it is less clear what the benefit would be for the 2006-2012 timeframe that would outweigh today’s public opinion and governmental damage.
Simond de Galbert
U.S. surveillance practices, in particular those targeting foreign leaders such as German Chancellor Merkel, have come under scrutiny in recent years. Many speculated that the U.S. also targeted French leaders, so yesterday’s revelations are more of a confirmation of these suspicions than a complete surprise. It does not make them more acceptable from a political standpoint, even if the activities in question are understood to have been discontinued. President Obama committed to put an end to such practices, and reiterated this commitment in February 2014 during President Hollande’s state visit to the United States and again today during a phone conversation between both leaders.
Yesterday’s revelations are unlikely to have dramatic consequences for the broader Franco-American relationship and it would be in both countries’ interests to limit their impact. The United States and France remain “indispensable partners” (to quote the NSC spokesman), and their daily cooperation on a range of critical issues – from the fight against terrorism in the Sahel or Daesh in Iraq and Syria, to the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran – has only grown more essential in recent years. Hopefully, the disagreements over the U.S. surveillance program can therefore be separated from the rest of the relationship.
This does not make addressing the issue any less necessary in the longer term, however. U.S. surveillance activity is a sensitive issue domestically in many European countries and France is no exception. Optimists will point out that the revelations about the United States’ surveillance program are not a big deal because all foreign intelligence services, including those of the United States’ closest allies, engage in the same practices. The fact is that the resources allocated by the United States towards this end are in no way comparable to those of its allies. The United States’ GDP is six times larger than that of France and Washington spends 15 times more than Paris on defense, but astonishingly it is reported that the United States dedicates 30 times more than France to intelligence. The United States’ reliance on intelligence is hypertrophied in comparison to its allies, and no one can therefore reasonably believe that what U.S. intelligence agencies do is in anyway comparable to what France could be doing. So for the future, mutual understanding will be critical to make sure disagreements about surveillance can be settled and don’t spill over the rest of the relationship.
Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic, and director of the Europe Program, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Simond de Galbert is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at CSIS.
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