PARIS — Embarrassed by leaked conversations of three successive French presidents and angered by new evidence of uninhibited American spying, France demanded answers Wednesday and called for an intelligence “code of conduct” between allies.
France’s foreign minister summoned the U.S. ambassador to respond to the WikiLeaks revelations, while President Barack Obama spoke by phone with his French counterpart. And all eyes were fixed on the top floor of the U.S. Embassy after reports that a nest of NSA surveillance equipment was concealed there, just down the block 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.”
Obama told Francois Hollande in the phone conversation Wednesday that the U.S. wasn’t targeting his communications, the White House said. Obama said the U.S. was abiding by a commitment that he made in 2013 not to spy on the French leader after Edward Snowden disclosed the extent of NSA surveillance powers.
That pledge came a year after the last of the revelations in the new Wikileaks trove, which date from 2006 to 2012 and appear to capture top French officials talking candidly about relations with Germany, Greece’s economy and American spying on allies.
The White House said Obama also pledged to continue close cooperation with France on matters of intelligence and security.
If not a surprise, the latest 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.”
Still, the French weren’t denying the need for good intelligence — they have long relied on U.S. intel cooperation to fight terrorism and are trying to beef up their own capabilities.
The release of the spying revelations appeared timed to coincide with a final vote Wednesday in the French Parliament on a controversial bill allowing broad new surveillance powers, in particular to counter threats of French extremists linked to foreign jihad.
The law, which would give intelligence services authority to monitor Internet use and phone calls in France, passed in a show-of-hands vote, despite a last round of criticism from privacy advocates concerned about massive U.S.-style data sweeps. It won’t take effect, however, until a high court rules on whether it is constitutional.
Hours before the vote, the Socialist-led 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.
Hollande, calling the U.S. spying an “unacceptable” security breach, convened two emergency meetings as a result of the spying disclosures.
The top floor of the U.S. Embassy, visible from France’s Elysee Palace, reportedly was filled with spying equipment hidden behind elaborately painted tromp l’oeil windows, according to the Liberation newspaper, which partnered with WikiLeaks and the website Mediapart on the documents.
U.S. Ambassador Jane Hartley was summoned to the Foreign Ministry, where she promised to provide quick responses to French concerns, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said. He said he understood the need for eavesdropping for counterterrorist reasons, “but this has nothing to do with that.”
Hollande was sending his top intelligence coordinator to the U.S. to ensure that promises made after earlier NSA spying revelations in 2013 and 2014 have been kept.
Valls said the U.S. must do everything it can, and quickly, to “repair the damage” to U.S.-French relations.
“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.
“France does not listen in on its allies,” government spokesman Stephane Le Foll told reporters.
The disclosures, which emerged late Tuesday, mean that France has joined Germany on the list of U.S. allies targeted by the NSA.
Two of the cables — dealing with then-President Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques 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.
An aide to Sarkozy said that the former president considered the eavesdropping unacceptable. There was no immediate comment from Chirac.
The surveillance law passed Wednesday would allow intelligence services to place recording devices in suspects’ homes and tracking devices on their cars without a judge’s prior authorization. It would also require Internet firms to allow the installation of electronic boxes to record metadata from all Internet users in France, which could then be analyzed for potentially suspicious behavior.
While the French rhetoric was lively Wednesday, the high-level U.S.-French meetings showed that the countries remain important allies, and suggested they were ready to paper over their differences.
In Germany, revelations that the NSA was listening to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone weighed on relations with the U.S. for a while but it has very much receded from the top of the political leaders’ agenda.
Le Foll, the French government spokesman, who was heading Wednesday to Washington on a previously scheduled trip, said it wasn’t a diplomatic rupture.
But, he added, “when you see this between allied countries it’s unacceptable and, I would add, incomprehensible.”