x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

France tells US snooping must stop but backs off fight

France tells the US to stop monitoring the telephone calls of its citizens but backs away from picking a fight with its ally over the issue.

French foreign affairs minister Laurent Fabius (right) welcomes US secretary of state John Kerry in Paris. Mr Fabius used the meeting to issue a fresh admonishment to the US for monitoring millions of French phone calls. Philippe Wojazer / EPA
French foreign affairs minister Laurent Fabius (right) welcomes US secretary of state John Kerry in Paris. Mr Fabius used the meeting to issue a fresh admonishment to the US for monitoring millions of French phone calls. Philippe Wojazer / EPA

PARIS // France on Tuesday warned the United States to stop snooping on the telephone calls of its citizens but backed away from picking a fight with its ally over the issue.

In a breakfast meeting with John Kerry, the US secretary of state, France’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius demanded a full explanation of the latest revelations about a controversial US spying programme.

“He repeated our demand for an explanation of spying practices which are unacceptable between partners and which must stop,” a spokesman for the minister said.

Despite the robust tone adopted by the foreign ministry, there were signs that Paris wants to defuse the row created by the latest revelations based on leaks by the former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

When asked if France was considering reprisals over the NSA’s conduct, the government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem played down the possibility.

“It is up to foreign minister Fabius to decide what line we take but I don’t think there is any need for an escalation,” Ms Vallaud-Belkacem said.

“We have to have a respectful relationship between partners, between allies. Our confidence in that has been hit but it is after all a very close, individual relationship that we have.”

Le Monde newspaper reported this week that the NSA had monitored more than 70 million phone communications in France between December 10, 2012 and January 8 this year.

The daily said the operation appeared to have targeted business and political figures as well as people suspected of being involved in terrorism, putting it in a different league from the monitoring France’s own intelligence services reportedly carry out.

Le Monde followed up on Tuesday by publishing details of US spying on French embassies around the world, most of which was already in the public domain.

Francois Hollande, the French president, told Barack Obama on Monday that the NSA’s actions had been “unacceptable between friends and allies”.

US officials have acknowledged that the French have a legitimate basis for complaint but described some of the reporting on the NSA programme as “distorted”.

Mr Obama has already initiated a review of how the US gathers intelligence with a view to addressing concerns over citizens’ right to privacy, they say.

US officials have also been anxious to stress that intelligence acquired from phone monitoring can be of benefit to all of Washington’s allies in fighting terrorism.

Speaking in Paris on Monday, Mr Kerry defended the US position without going into the specifics of the most recent claims.

“Protecting the security of our citizens in today’s world is a very complicated, very challenging task ... because there are lots of people out there seeking to do harm to other people,” Mr Kerry said.

“Our goal is always to try to find the right balance between protecting the privacy and security of our citizens.”

* Agence France-Presse