Furious France blasts US internet spying

France has become the latest NATO power to issue an angry response to revelations of American internet surveillance. But is the outrage of European leaders tinged with hypocrisy?

France is one of America’s oldest and most vital allies. Without French help, the United States may have lost its struggle for independence from Britain; without US intervention, the Nazis may never have been kicked out of France. Today, the two powers usually form a united front on the UN Security Council and fight side-by-side against Islamic fundamentalists from Mali to Afghanistan. Comments about ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ aside, the relationship is generally amicable.

Not, however, this week. On Monday the American ambassador in Paris was summoned to the French Foreign Ministry and told that his government’s behaviour was ‘totally unacceptable’. A few hours later French president Francois Hollande revealed that he had called his US counterpart Barack Obama with a similar message.

The cause of this French outrage: the activities of American intelligence services abroad, which were dramatically exposed in June by a leak from government-contracted computer programmer Edward Snowden.

On Monday, French newspaper Le Monde printed a report claiming that the US National Security Agency (NSA) had intercepted 70 million digital communications within France in the space of a single month. The country’s leaders are demanding a thorough explanation.

France is not alone among America’s allies in its anger at US spying. In September, thousands of Germans took to the streets of Berlin and other cities to protest against what they see as a dangerous intrusion.

The reaction of President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil was particularly strong – unsurprisingly, since the NSA leaks showed that her own personal messages had been intercepted. She accused America of ‘a grave violation of human rights and civil liberties’.

So are they all as bad as each other? Not quite: with enormous resources and the servers of internet giants within its borders, America has the capacity to spy on foreign citizens in ways other countries can only dream of.

Some believe that this makes France’s attitude hypocritical: if they only had the means, all governments would be just as intrusive as the USA. Others argue that it is precisely America’s disproportionate power that makes it a menace.

Nosey neighbours

There is no doubt that the USA was spying on its allies. But is that really so surprising?

Perhaps not: some diplomatic experts claim that every nation is at it. American intelligence agencies, one American source, for instance, called France the ‘evil empire in stealing technology’. And when it comes to internet surveillance, an academic paper recently ranked French and German agencies as equally unscrupulous. Britain’s were rated even worse.

You Decide

  1. How much does it bother you that the government could be reading your emails?
  2. Is American power good for the world?


  1. ‘Spying on friends is always immoral.’ Hold a class debate on this proposition and put it to a vote.
  2. Research one spying scandal from history and make a brief presentation explaining how it unfolded.

Some People Say...

“Privacy is overrated.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So are American spies reading every message I send online?
Certainly not: estimates for the number of emails sent each day reach into the hundreds of billions – and that doesn’t include Facebook messages and the like. No offence, but nothing you send is likely to be important enough to interest American spies.
Oh. No need to worry then?
No need to worry that someone is constantly reading over your shoulder when you’re on a computer. But they are analysing people’s data en masse, and that is more than enough to make many people feel deeply unsettled. On the other hand, security services themselves would say that such surveillance is vital in tackling terrorism and organised crime. It’s a complicated question.

Word Watch

UN Security Council
A powerful arm of the United Nations which has the power to authorise military action against a state that has broken international law. The Security Council has five permanent members, each of whom can veto any proposed resolution, along with ten non-permanent members who are elected by the rest of the nations in the UN.
Early last year a conflict began in this West African nation between government forces and an alliance of rebels including extremist militants linked to al-Qaeda. France, once the colonial masters of Mali, intervened on the government side in January and successfully liberated much of the country’s north from Islamist rule.
Cheese-eating surrender monkeys
A phrase first used by the Simpsons character Groundskeeper Willie but adopted by US media after France refused to support America’s invasion of Iraq. Another famous instance of anti-French sentiment in the same period was the rebranding of French fries in the US Congress cafe: the chips became known as ‘freedom fries’.


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