Spying on the French

Not for the first time, France is upset with the United States. The French government, earnestly desiring an explanation—meaning, a humiliation—summoned the American ambassador at the same time as US Secretary of State John Kerry touched down in Paris. And the US ambassador will have to perform the usual diplomatic acrobatics to avoid explaining why the US is spying on much of France.

The true answer—Because we can and also because you know what we’re doing, anyway—will likely not be offered. But that’s what it comes down to. Between December 2012 and January 2013, according to the newspaper Le Monde, the NSA recorded more than 70 million French phone calls. Of particular interest is the US focus of these phone calls: the companies Wanadoo and Alcatel-Lucent. Wanadoo is a former offshoot of France Telecom, now part of the French Internet giant Orange. Alcatel-Lucent is a Franco-American telecommunications company and mobile phone manufacturer with 70,000 employees. Among other things, it manufactures and installs submarine cables—part of its optics equipment business, interestingly enough.

But here’s the even more interesting part: According to Le Monde (which got its information from the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and his journalistic ally Glenn Greenwald), this past January Fleur Pellerin, the French digital technology minister, announced she was considering major French government investment in Alcatel-Lucent Submarine Networks. Why? Because, she said, what the company was doing—laying lots of underwater cable—was of important strategic interest to her nation, involving “cyber-surveillance” and “the security of the area.” The company has a 40 percent market share in underwater cables, and it was looking for a buyer of that division. For good reason.

Alcatel-Lucent has fallen on hard times: earlier this month, it said it would cut 10,000 jobs worldwide, 900 of them in France, which can ill afford even so small a loss. So the French had both economic and strategic reasons for a major government infusion of cash into the cyber-surveillance aspects of the enterprise. Oddly, on being questioned more recently about the desire of her country to invest heavily in the bleeding enterprise, Mme. Pellerin refused any further comment.

France can shriek all it wants about American eavesdropping—Le Monde’s latest editorial is titled “Combattre Big Brother.” But best I can deduce, Big Brother has un ami at the Palais de l’Élysée.

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