President Hollande’s Nonchalance with ‘Classified Information’

By: William Moray

French President François Hollande during the 11th November commemorations in 2002
French President François Hollande during the 11th November commemorations in 2002

A book written by two French journalists has been causing mayhem in France’s political arena for the past month. Published on October 11, 2016, A President Should Not Say That – Secrets of Five Years in Office was written by Gérard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme, who both work for the daily newspaper Le Monde. The book is the result of sixty interviews conducted over five years with the French President, François Hollande. It covers a wide variety of subjects, more or less sensitive, and also includes secret information about special operations. This case constitutes a classic example of the politicisation of intelligence through the publication of classified information. Moreover, it illustrates the indifference in which the French president holds the concept of Secret Défense – ‘top secret’ – and thus, potentially compromising his country’s national interests.

Secrecy key to covert actions

As the title of the book suggests, Hollande has made public use of data which is highly confidential, regarding the assassination of terrorists. For instance, the public learned that Hollande ordered ‘at least’ four targeted killings. These acts are part of what is called a disruptive action – better known under the American lexicon as ‘covert action’. Covert action may consist of any of the following four operations: propaganda, political action, information warfare or paramilitary activities, which includes assassination.[1] Information is allegedly the currency of intelligence services. Indeed, the purpose of intelligence, as Richard Betts argues, is to ‘facilitate a coherent decision in an incoherent environment’[2], which requires the collection and analysis of information. However, Len Scott suggests that the emphasis of intelligence work can shift to something else: secrecy. To that extent, it is natural that covert actions fall within the responsibility of intelligence, as it allows a state to preserve secrecy and/or plausible deniability when conducting such activities.[3]

It is undeniable that a Head of State ordering the execution of individuals raises ethical considerations, such as the violation of human rights and international law. For instance, Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that every individual has the right to the presumption of innocence as well as fair trial. This issue is worsened because covert operations had been conducted overseas and as such, infringe a fundamental principle of the current international order: the state sovereignty of a foreign country[4]. However, the purpose of this article is not to discuss or repeal such analyses, but rather to focus on another aspect – the importance of secrecy.

The problem, therefore, is not Hollande’s admission per se that the French intelligence machinery is involved in targeted assassinations. It is known that within the foreign intelligence service – the General-Directorate for External Security (DGSE) – there exists a special unit dedicated to black operations. Among them are ‘Homo Operations’ (opérations Homo); in other words, assassination. Former operatives of this unit, Action Service, have published books revealing some classified details. [5] The issue is rather that the Head of State purposely gave some classified information to the book’s authors, i.e. the targeted killing of at least four terrorists out of an alleged list of seventeen potential targets.

Politicisation of intelligence vs national interest

The motives behind Hollande’s act lie within French domestic politics. Indeed, France will elect its President next year. At the time, Hollande intended to be re-elected, but he faced terrible approval ratings, a record low of 4% as of last month, according to a poll conducted for Le Monde. The argument can thus be made that the Hollande was desperately looking for a solution to such issues and assumed that transparency via the disclosure of classified information would help him to appear as a strong leader and thus boost his popularity. Government Spokesman Stéphane Le Foll has claimed that the revelations published in the book prove that Hollande is ‘an honest man’.  Obviously, such a declaration is highly debatable, for two reasons. First, many political figures, including from his majority, denounced Hollande’s revelations to the authors, thus making his position even more difficult. Second, MPs of the right-wing conservative opposition have taken this opportunity to call for his impeachment, although with very little chance of success.

Paul Pillar defines politicisation as ‘the compromise of the objectivity of intelligence, or of how intelligence is used, to serve policy or political aims’ [6]; this process can take different forms, one of which is the publication [7]. Many politicians in the past have used it in the past, and it is not only limited to President Hollande’s case. Among one of them is the US Barack Obama took credit of Osama bin Laden’s death, at the hand of CIA operatives and Special Forces. This operation – codenamed ‘Neptune’s Spear’ – occurred on the May 2, 2011, one year before the American Presidential election was to take place. Thus, Obama’s popularity increased, but at the cost of deteriorated relations between America and Pakistan.

There is a strong analogy between both situations in terms of motives. Amidst the rhetoric of anti-terrorist sentiments in France, Hollande chose to publicize the killing of four jihadists, in hopes that this would garner him a better rating in the polls. Unfortunately, in disclosing classified information regarding ‘Homo Operations’ to journalists, Hollande has betrayed the core tenants of national secrecy of which he was sworn to protect, and also demonstrated that he did not hesitate to politicise intelligence. Put differently, the head of French state possibly infringed the raison d’État by putting Paris in a potentially delicate diplomatic dilemma, having lost the advantage of plausible deniability. He had to choose between protecting the national interest and prioritizing his own political agenda; he chose the poorer of the two options. The irony is that in the end, this public relations scheme did not prove to serve him well, as he announced on the 1st of December that he would not seek a second term.

William Moray is the BA representative for Strife Blog and he is a final year undergraduate in War Studies at King’s College London. His research interests include intelligence and the history of intelligence, terrorism, nuclear proliferation and the relations between Russia and the West. You can follow him @WilliamMoray


[1] William J. Daugherty, ‘The Role of Covert Action’ in Handbook of Intelligence Studies, ed. Loch K. Johnson, (London: Routlege, 2009), pp. 281 – 283

[2] Richard K. Betts, ‘Analysis, War, and Decision: Why Intelligence Failures Are inevitable’, World Politics, Vol.31, No. 1 (Oct. 1978), p. 69, DOI: 10.2307/2009967

[3]  Len Scott, ‘Secret Intelligence, Covert Action and Clandestine Diplomacy’, Intelligence and National Security, Vol. 19, No. 2 (2004), p. 322

[4] As stated in the article 2, par. 1 of the United Nations Charter

[5] Pierre Siramy, Laurent Léger, ’25 ans dans les Services Secrets’ (Paris : Flammarion, 2010) Pierre Martinet, ‘DGSE Service Action – Un Agent Sort de l’Ombre’ (Paris : J’ai Lu, 2012)

[6] Paul R. Pillar, ‘The Perils of Politicization’, in The Oxford Handbook of National Security Intelligence, ed. Lock Johnson (Oxford: 2010), p. 473.

[7] Ibid, p. 474

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