Described as “unacceptable”, France summoned the US ambassador on Wednesday to explain allegations made by transparency lobby group WikiLeaks of spying on previous French leaders.
The latest case of espionage among Western allies comes following the revelation that the US National Security Agency (NSA) had spied on Germany and that the German BND intelligence agency had cooperated with the NSA to conduct spy operations on officials and companies elsewhere in Europe.
Hollande initiated an emergency meeting of ministers and army commanders after it was brought to light that the NSA had been spying on the last three French presidents. Stephane Le Foll, a government spokesman, said a senior French intelligence official would be sent to the US to confirm that the spying is over.
A statement from the president’s office said that “France will not tolerate actions that threaten its security and protection of its interests,” adding that this was not the first time allegations of US spying on France had surfaced.
“Commitments were made by the U.S. authorities. They need to be recalled and strictly respected.”
Lawmakers told reporters that French President Francois Hollande had scheduled to speak with US President Barack Obama later in the day. This was after the US ambassador had been summoned by France’s Foreign Ministry.
A statement from the US National Security Council claimed that they had no intention of targeting Hollande’s communications but did not clarify whether spying had taken place with previous leaders.
Stating that ministers were told to be careful when speaking on their mobile phones, Le Foll told reporters “we have to verify this spying has finished.”
“Between allies this is unacceptable and incomprehensible. France does not spy on its allies,” he said.
Despite good relations between Paris and Washington, UN Security Council Veto-holder France fiercely maintains an independent stance on foreign policy. Over the last few years, there have been moments of friction and irritation on both sides.
In 2013, Hollande expressed disappointment when Obama made a last-minute decision not to strike Syrian government positions. US officials have also privately lambasted France’s tough stance in talks over Iran’s nuclear program.
Reports of the revelations were first made by French daily Liberation and news website Mediapart, which said that the NSA had conducted spying operations on presidents Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande between the period of at least 2006 until May 2012.
The documents reveal that Sarkozy considered restarting peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians without US involvement. They also highlighted Hollande’s fears of a Greek eurozone exit back in 2012.
Le Foll said that while Paris had not decided whether to launch legal proceedings as Germany had, there have been calls from some quarters for retaliation, though they played down diplomatic consequences.
“In the face of threats that we face and given the historic ties linking us, we have to keep a perspective,” he said. “We’re not going to break diplomatic ties.”
Sarkozy’s former chief of staff and one of the reported targets of the NSA, Claude Gueant, told RTL Radio that he “[feels] trust has been broken.”
The documents covered summaries of conversations between French officials regarding the global financial crisis, the future of the European Union, and ties between Hollande’s administration and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government.
WikiLeaks also said that the documents contained the phone numbers of officials in the Elysee presidential palace, including that of the president.
Ironically, the French parliament will implement an intelligence bill on Wednesday to enhance counter-terrorism activities. Putting the bill in place will negate the need for judicial warrants to deploy phone taps, hidden microphones, cameras and other devices.
Critics say the law permits activities similar to the widespread surveillance exposed by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
As of Thursday, Obama had reassured his French counterparts that the US is no longer spying on France.