Twice since late 2013, President Barack Obama privately assured French President Francois Hollande that the United States had stopped monitoring his communications.
That perhaps softened the impact of new revelations that the National Security Agency eavesdropped on Hollande and his two predecessors.
Hollande’s government went through all of the standard displays of outrage on Wednesday, the day after the disclosures, convening emergency meetings of ministers, military commanders and lawmakers, and summoning U.S. Ambassador Jane Hartley to the Foreign Ministry to hear an official protest.
French politicians spewed volleys of anti-U.S. indigation, Hollande telephoned Obama, and his office said that senior French intelligence officials would be dispatched to Washington to discuss improved cooperation.
“France will not tolerate actions that threaten its security and the protection of its interests,” said the statement issued by Hollande’s office.
Yet it’s unlikely that the latest revelations of U.S. spying on foreign leaders will damage U.S.-French relations as badly as U.S.-German ties were buffeted in October 2013 when documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden showed that the agency was monitoring the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The United States and France are working closely on numerous fronts, from the international negotiations to limit Iran’s nuclear program to fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, and both governments almost certainly want to avoid jeopardizing that cooperation. Moreover, Obama had already told Hollande about the monitoring and assured him that it had stopped.
“This does not hugely impact bilateral relations (with France),” said Heather Conley, a former State Department official who directs the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy institute. “After the Snowden revelations, they (NSA) carefully updated their targeting list and Merkel and Hollande were taken off.
“So this is old news. But it’s embarrassing,” Conley said. “They (the French) have to go through their formalities. This is what we call the necessary Kabuki dance. You’re called in and you’re given a very stern message. The Americans repeat that this is no longer done, this is in the past and they’ve changed their intelligence methods.”
Indeed, both the statement by Hollande’s office and statements issued by the White House emphasized that Obama had assured his French counterpart in late 2013 – after the revelations about Merkel’s cellphone – and then again during a 2014 summit in Washington that the NSA had stopped monitoring his communications.
“The president reiterated that we have abided by the commitment we made to our French counterparts in late 2013 that we are not targeting and will not target the communications of the French president,” the White House said in a statement. “We are committed to our productive and indispensable intelligence relationship with France, which allows us to make progress against shared threats, including international terrorism and proliferation, among others.”
The statement, however, appeared to leave open the prospect that the communications of other French officials remained fair game, reflecting the reality that even the United States and its closest allies are constantly spying on each other.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest declined to say if Obama had apologized to the French leader during their telephone call, which Earnest called “consistent with the conversation he had with Hollande a year ago.”
The latest disclosure of NSA spying came on Tuesday, when WikiLeaks, the online anti-secrecy organization, released five top-secret NSA documents showing that the agency had monitored the communications of Hollande and his two predecessors, Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac.
The most recent document, which summarized a conversation about the Greek financial crisis that Hollande held with his former prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, was dated May 2012. That was before Snowden leaked thousands of top-secret documents to American and British journalists.
The document could prove highly embarrassing for Hollande, who was monitored asking Ayrault to set up secret meetings with German opposition leaders behind Merkel’s back.
The revelations by WikiLeaks, which worked with two French news organizations, appeared timed to coincide with consideration in the French Parliament of legislation that would give the country’s intelligence services sweeping powers to monitor the communications of French citizens.
Hollande’s government pushed the bill as necessary to prevent a repetition of the Islamist terrorist attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine, and a Jewish supermarket in January.
While Paris and Washington will work to minimize the fallout of the latest NSA revelations on U.S.-French relations, they will have a hard time preventing the disclosures from fueling anti-U.S. sentiments in France and other European countries.
“Where this will have an impact will be on (European) public opinion,” said Conley, noting that it has remained deeply anti-American since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which was strongly opposed in Europe.
Strong anti-American sentiment could constrain Hollande in his ability to expand cooperation with the United States, she said. “When public opinion sours, it limits the maneuverability of leaders to be able to take bold steps and support the U.S. in its objectives.”