France has ordered five Americans to leave the country on suspicion of spying. Four of them are diplomats, including one believed to be the CIA station chief in Paris; the fifth does not have diplomatic status, but is suspected of working under cover for the CIA. All are accused of trying to recruit French officials for the purpose of obtaining sensitive political and economic information.
Details of the expulsions, highly unusual between two ostensibly friendly Western countries, were given by the newspaper Le Monde yesterday afternoon, in an article that had clearly been prepared with the full cooperation of the French interior ministry.
Within hours, a joint statement from the interior and foreign ministries confirmed that "several people, among them diplomats" had been required to leave the country. Two US citizens had left of their own accord and five were to be expelled.
The American embassy in Paris declined to comment yesterday, saying that "we never comment on intelligence matters", but a US official in Washington told Reuters news agency: "My understanding is that the story is substantially true."
The French Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, said that matters of this kind needed to be treated "with the greatest discretion", but he denied there was any crisis in French-American relations. Le Monde had noted pointedly that such cases were usually handled in secret, and the fact that France had chosen to make this case public reflected the deterioration in relations between the two countries. However, the revelations come at a highly sensitive and possibly significant time in French politics. Not only do they appear shortly before the Group of Seven industrialised countries meets in Brussels to discuss the fraught matter of audio-visual tariffs, they also coincide with a period of intense political pressure on the French interior minister, Charles Pasqua, over his involvement in a telephone tapping scandal, which threatened to damage Mr Balladur's chances of winning the presidential election.
The revelation of the US spy case gives Mr Pasqua, Mr Balladur's chief ally in his bid for the presidency, a chance to recover his popular image as a defender of law and order and the honour of France.
Some of the French allegations relate to the Gatt talks in 1992-3 which pitched the US against France on agriculture and audiovisual matters in a long-running battle over tariffs and quotas. The talks finally concluded in December 1993 without an audio-visual agreement.
Le Monde said that Mr Pasqua had sent the dossier of evidence on the case to President Mitterrand on 18 February, with an accompanying letter. This said in part: "A long and detailed inquiry by the DST (the French counter-intelligence service) has established that an American intelligence service has committed acts of interference using a senior French official as intermediary. I have informed the US ambassador in Paris in the strongest possible terms that such acts cannot be tolerated and that those who committed them will not be permitted to reside on French territory."
The US ambassador, Pamela Harriman, a political appointee of President Clinton, was apparently summoned to the French interior ministry on 26 January. The request for the five to leave was put in writing on 1 February. On 10 February, however, Ms Harriman was again summoned to the interior ministry and given an ultimatum. According to Le Monde, two of the five are no longer registered at the embassy.
According to the DST report, the Americans wanted information about technology in the space, arms and aeronautical industries, and about developments in physics, chemistry and biotechnology. They were also interested in French internal politics, wanting information about the "overall economic and commercial directions, especially in the areas of audiovisual and telecommunications".
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