The former head of the DGSE, France's foreign intelligence service, has admitted for the first time that his spies snooped on foreign commercial companies and passed on vital business and technical information to French firms.
In a remarkable interview for Germany's ZDF television, to be broadcast tonight, Claude Silberzahn, who ran the DGSE from 1989 to 1993, asserted that "all secret services of the big democracies undertake economic espionage".
"Their role is to peer into hidden corners,'' Mr Silberzahn said, ''and in that context business plays an important part.
"In France the state is not just responsible for the laws, it is also an entrepreneur," Mr Silberzahn went on. "There are state-owned and semi- public companies. And that is why it is correct that for decades the French state regulated the market with its right hand in some ways and used its intelligence service with its left hand to furnish its commercial companies."
Although the former spy boss refused to give details, ZDF television produced a long list of US companies, including Boeing and Texas Instruments, which were - and probably still are - targeted by the DGSE.
The French used eavesdropping technology stolen from the Americans to track the test flights of the new Boeing 747-400 in Seattle. The data was then passed on to Airbus, the French-led consortium in which Britain, Germany and Spain also participate. It is perhaps no coincidence that Airbus is now said to build the most advanced fly-by-wire (computer) navigation system in the world.
In September 1993 France's GEC-Alsthom won a lucrative contract to build South Korea's fast train network. The Germans were convinced at the time that their own Siemens had produced a far more competitive tender but had been nobbled by the French.
Could the DGSE have had a hand in the contract going to France? That is not impossible, judging by Mr Silberzahn's words: "It is among the tasks of the secret services to use open and secret sources to shed light on ... the granting of such major contracts, particularly in far-off countries."