President François Hollande has blasted President Barack Obama over the phone after it emerged that an American spy agency had intercepted millions of French phone calls and texts, including 70 million in a single month.
President Obama made a conciliatory call to President Hollande last night after Le Monde revealed that French politicians and businessmen, as well as terrorists suspects, were the target of a vast monitoring operation by the National Security Agency (NSA).
The White House said later that Mr Obama recognised that the revelation – based on documents provided by the American whistleblower Edward Snowden - raises “legitimate questions for our friends and allies.”
The Élysée Palace said that Mr Hollande had expressed “profound reprobation”.
The French president also asked Mr Obama to hand over all records of US electronic espionage in France but he appears not to have received any firm commitments on this point.
From 10 December to 8 January this year, the NSA intercepted up to 7 million French calls and texts a day, and 70,300,000 messages in total, according to the internal documents seen by Le Monde. This appears to have been just a random sample of a gargantuan system of American surveillance of supposed friends and allies.
The agency’s sophisticated monitoring systems automatically recorded telephone calls to and from certain numbers, including those of senior French political and business figures. Text traffic was “swept” and messages recorded when key words appeared, according to the Le Monde article co-written by the US journalist Glenn Greenwald, who broke the original NSA revelations by Mr Snowden.
French intelligence has similar systems for monitoring internal phone traffic and has been accused in the past of snooping on American politicians and business secrets. But the scale and breadth of the NSA operation revealed by the Snowden leaks – far beyond what is needed to monitor terrorist activity – has infuriated a string of US allies, including Germany. Brazil and Mexico.
The NSA is theoretically barred from spying on allies with whom the US has a special intelligence relationship in the so-called “'Five Eyes” partnership: Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.