If you buy the latest reporting out of Europe, France is outraged, simply outraged, at news that the National Security Agency has been eavesdropping on the European Union through its mission in New York and embassy in Washington. French political parties are now rumbling about offering asylum to Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor at the center of the leaks. The French government is demanding answers from the United States about its snooping. Monsieur Le Président himself, François Hollande, is calling for an end to the spying.
All of which is pretty hilarious, given France's penchant for stealing American defense technology, bugging American business executives and generally annoying U.S. counterintelligence officials. If you've been paying attention, you know that France is a proficient, notorious and unrepentant economic spy. "In economics, we are competitors, not allies," Pierre Marion, the former director of France's equivalent of the CIA, once said. "America has the most technical information of relevance. It is easily accessible. So naturally your country will receive the most attention from the intelligence services."
It's thus tempting to toss aside France's protests as rank and witting hypocrisy over economic espionage, which of course they are. But the leaks about the NSA's collection of economic information and the difficulty in explaining the differences in how it's used on opposite sides of the Atlantic spell trouble for American cyberdiplomacy around the world.
Lest you doubt that France has dirty hands in corporate spying, there's a long, storied and public bill of particulars against La République Française's intelligence agencies.
France's espionage against American companies, described as "aggressive and massive," dates back to the 1960s and is largely born out of a desire to prop up its defense industry, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office, which delicately referred to France as "Country B." France lacks a domestic defense market large enough to support cutting edge development so it opts to steal American military technology in order to save R&D costs and enjoy advanced weaponry for its own military and competitive for exports abroad.
France's economic espionage hasn't been confined solely to America's defense industrial base, though. In the late 1980s, French intelligence reportedly spied on premiere firms such as Texas Instruments and IBM in a bid to help out its domestic computer industry. Reports of hidden microphones in the seats of Air France picking up the indiscreet business chatter of American executives have since become common intelligence lore.
The snooping burst into the public sphere during the 1993 Paris Air Show, the world's biggest aerospace confab. It's usually prom for the aviation industry, a chance for countries to show off their latest and greatest fighter jets and commercial airliner. But the show hit a sour note when a CIA document listing dozens of American companies targeted for espionage by France leaked to the public, prompting firms like Pratt & Whitney and Hughes Aircraft to hold back products or withdraw from the show entirely.
The spying continues even today, according a recent U.S. National Intelligence Estimate. The NIE declared France, alongside Russia and Israel, to be in a distant but respectable second place behind China in using cyberespionage for economic gain.