PARIS (AFP) – France on Tuesday told Washington to stop snooping on its citizens, but backed away from picking a fight, while Mexico summoned the U.S. ambassador over the latest spying allegations.
Newspaper reports based on leaks by former American intelligence contractor Edward Snowden have over the past 48 hours revealed that millions of phone calls in France and the Mexican presidency’s emails were being monitored by U.S. agencies.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius used a breakfast meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris to demand a full explanation of the latest revelations on the National Security Agency’s spying programme.
“I said again to John Kerry what (French President) Francois Hollande told (U.S. President) Barack Obama, that this kind of spying conducted on a large scale by the Americans on its allies is something that is unacceptable,” Fabius said in London later in the day.
All the signs were however that Paris wants to defuse the row.
When asked if France was considering reprisals over the NSA’s conduct, government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem replied: “I don’t think there is any need for an escalation [of the situation]. 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 carry out.
Le Monde followed up on Tuesday by publishing details of U.S. spying on French embassies around the world.
France’s Communist Party called for the country to pull out of NATO in protest, but reaction to Le Monde’s reports was otherwise muted.
Most commentators seemed to agree that it was far from surprising that the U.S. was carrying out intelligence operations in France.
“It doesn’t mean it is not very serious, and the Americans must explain themselves, but this has all been known about for a very long time,” said Christian Jacob, an opposition MP. “They’re panicking and attempting a diversion operation.”
Hollande told Obama on Monday evening that the NSA’s actions had been “unacceptable between friends and allies.”
Obama has already initiated a review of how the U.S. gathers intelligence with a view to addressing concerns over citizens’ right to privacy, officials say.
U.S. officials also stress that intelligence acquired from phone monitoring can benefit all of Washington’s allies in fighting terrorism.
“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,” Kerry said on Monday.
As it seeks to keep France sweet, the Obama administration is simultaneously grappling with the fallout from the revelation by German weekly Der Spiegel that the NSA hacked into former Mexican president Felipe Calderon’s email.
Calderon has described the news as an “affront to the institutions of the country, given that it took place when I was president.”
Mexico’s current President Enrique Pena Nieto has already complained to Obama over reports American spies have gone through his emails and on Tuesday asked that the ambassador be summoned.
“President Enrique Pena Nieto… asked me to summon, upon my return to Mexico, the ambassador of the United States, Anthony Wayne,” Mexican Foreign Minister Jose Antonio Meade said in Geneva.
He also said that the U.S. response to the spiralling scandal so far had been “unacceptable” and demanded that a probe pledged by Obama be opened swiftly.
The latest revelations come on top of previous disclosures by Snowden that the United States had a vast secret programme called PRISM to monitor Internet users.
French prosecutors are investigating the program.
Snowden is currently living in Russia, having fled there via Hong Kong to escape U.S. authorities pursuing him for leaking classified information.