Strife Interview – Defence Journalist Jean-Dominique Merchet on the French intelligence reforms

Palais de l’Elysée, home of the President of the Republic (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The French presidential elections are due to take place in a few weeks. They will have a significant impact on the short-term future of this country. The first round will be held on 23 April 2017 and the second round on 7 May 2017. The future Head of State will have to deal with several topics, including the terrorist threats, a hypothetical reform of the intelligence machinery, as well as the future of the European Union (EU).

Strife’s William Moray discusses these issues with defence journalist Jean-Dominique Merchet [@jdomerchet]. Mr Merchet is a journalist for the daily newspaper L’Opinion and he publishes Secret Defense – a professional blog. An expert in defence, strategy, and security issues, he is an alumni of the Institut des hautes études de défense nationale (Institute of Advanced Studies in National Defence), a public Academic institution dedicated to research and education in defence-related matters. All enquiries as to this article’s content should be sent to the Strife Blog.

WM – You recently wrote an article about some potential French intelligence reforms the future President of the Republic may have to decide upon. Which of these reforms – if any – do you think should constitute a priority?

JDM – The subject of the utmost importance is the nomination of a new ‘DGSE’ (Director-General of the Foreign Security). The need is strong, as Bernard Bajolet will be tending his resignation a fortnight after the presidential election.

In general, I would personally argue on the one hand in favour of maintaining the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE, ‘Directorate-General for Foreign Security’, the foreign intelligence agency) as it is. This organisation is a French particularity, known as an ‘integrated service’ in the sense that it combines different activities. Hence, in equivalent UK terms, with regards to covert operations, the DGSE combines the activities of MI6, the GCHQ and some activities of the SAS. I believe this system is not a bad one, it is efficient. Conversely, some people would like to dismantle the agency. For instance, the military part – i.e. the Service Action, Action Service, the division in charge of covert action – would be reassigned to the Commandement des Opérations Spéciales (COS, ‘Special Operations Command’, similar to USSOCOM). Another possibility would be to establish an equivalent of the NSA which would oversee SIGINT. However, a public servant well aware of this topic has recently suggested that ‘we must make improvements, but this is as simple as changing the parts in a moving car’. I think this sums it up accurately; thus, there is no need to change anything in the DGSE.

What does not work well on the other hand is the Ministry of the Interior (i.e. the Home Office), which in France controls the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Intérieure (DGSI, ‘General-Directorate for Domestic Security’, the domestic intelligence agency, which in France is under the Ministry of the Interior’s supervision). Again, this is strictly my own view, as a long-standing observer of such matters. The Ministry still functions more or less as it did in the early 20th Century, with regards to both law enforcement and domestic intelligence. To this extent, inter-service competition between police and prefets (representative of the state in local governments) remains a major characteristic. Also, the distinction between the National Police and the Paris Police Prefecture is another example of poor management, as this distinction does not make much sense. All things considered, the DGSI is a law-enforcement agency, not a domestic intelligence agency, unlike what the politicians claimed when it was established. Therefore, if there is truly a need for modernisation, it should be directed at the Ministry of Interior. In comparison, the Ministry of Defence – which supervises the DGSE – has considerably modernised in recent years.

WM – In regards to the recent controversy following the publication of the book “Un President ne devrait pas dire cela” was President Francois Hollande right to publish classified information regarding clandestine operations, more particularly ‘opérations homo’?

JDM – He was very wrong to do so. The book’s title speaks for itself, there are certain things the President should not talk about. In fact, I would argue this book finished Hollande of, as he renounced standing for re-election. In other words, this event was the final step of a long and tortuous road. However, the real problem is rather that Hollande and other decision-makers have, and continue to, abuse this military-like attitude, an attitude which I find very disagreeable. I am thinking of the vocabulary which is being used, such as ‘we are at war’. Ideally, one should continue as before whilst talking about it less. In the end, it is not up to politicians to feed the fantasy.

WM – How come the only response the French government has come up with towards the terrorist threats merely consists in the state of emergency, and not a proper strategy? This measure, similar to martial law and therefore intended to be temporary, has been ongoing for over a year (since the Paris attacks in November 2015) and has been extended on five occasions.

JDM – I would not be so categorical as to the absence of a strategy. To declare the state of emergency means to raise the level of alert up to a maximum. From there onwards, diminishing the level of alert becomes extremely hazardous, because it would be political suicide. The point is that the state of emergency is a PR operation; as with any PR operation, it is difficult to go back. For instance, I myself believe that the deployment of military personnel in the streets is of limited use. However, once a decision has been made, it is very difficult to reverse that decision. Nonetheless, the intelligence services, the anti-terrorist units and the police do their job: they prevent terrorist attacks from happening and dismantle terror networks. Nevertheless, it is important to find rules that dovetail well with the daily lives of the citizens.

WM – Yet, France’s response fails to include long-term measures (such as the Counter-Terrorism Strategy (CONTEST) in the UK). Why is that?

JDM – There is no perfect solution to the terrorist threat. Once a cycle of terrorist violence has been initiated, it is difficult to find a way out of it. Long-term solutions must indeed be found such as a means to tackle radicalisation, as well as considering the effects of foreign policy. A brainstorming process is required and improvements can always be found. However, an efficient antiterrorism policy also requires protective – and thus short-term oriented – measures. Short term and long term are not mutually exclusive. Coming up with criticism is one thing, such criticism is a necessity in a democratic system, however, snap judgments are another. You mentioned the United Kingdom. The British were lucky enough not to have suffered any terrorist attack lately, unlike France or Germany. I am not suggesting that the French approach is perfect, but who can claim to have the perfect strategy? The struggle against terrorism is an imprecise science.

French Soldiers patrolling near the Eiffel Tower (Credit: AFP – Gonzalo Fuentes)

WM – France will remain the only nuclear power and a UNSC permanent member of the EU in the aftermath of Brexit. Will Paris thus have increased responsibilities in terms of EU defence as well as diplomacy?

JDM – Not really, in the sense that the issue at stake is power. In that sense, the UK will always have an important role to play in the continent. After all, Great-Britain is a fundamental pillar of NATO. As Theresa May rightly pointed out, ‘the British people have voted to leave the EU, but they did not vote to leave Europe’. I do believe moreover that Brexit needs to be put in perspective, as the UK did not play a great role in either EU integrated defence or external security. Similarly, Brexit will not damage cooperation in regard to anti-terrorism, as intelligence sharing with France is the product of bilateral agreements. Conversely, I am quite sceptical about whether the departure of the UK from the EU will result in an acceleration of the work on the subjects of diplomacy and common defence.

In short, I really doubt that Brexit will cause much of an impact one way or another and thus, the effects this will have on France should be minimal. Brexit is not good for the international order, neither symbolically nor for the image it creates; the practical effects, however, will be limited.

WM – In the wake of the US national election hacks and information leaks during the campaign by several state and non-state actors, how well-equipped is French intelligence to respond to such similar threats – considering that the French presidential and legislative elections are a few months away?

JDM – Who is capable of successfully dealing with a massive cyberattack? Currently, in my view, nobody has this capacity on a large scale.

France is fully aware of the problem and has means of defending itself. The Conseil de défense et de sécurité nationale (Defence and national security council) met on Wednesday 1st of March, and this topic was discussed on that occasion. The media regularly mentions this topic, if only to educate the public and raise awareness. For instance, the expression ‘cyberattack’ has different layers. First, it can mean the propaganda being spread by social media. This is also a matter of freedom of speech. The fact that these rumours originate from sources close to the Kremlin (e.g. RT, Sputnik) is not the problem; this is ‘soft power’, and many Western powers similarly make use of it. The West no longer has the monopoly of either power or legitimacy, both are heavily contested. No, the real issue at stake here is that a fraction of the public opinion here in France, believe these ‘trolls’ spread by pro-governmental Russian media. The second layer is the attack which targets and takes down a website. Here again, some defensive measures do exist. Finally, the third layer, i.e.the actual hacking is the theft of confidential data for a specific purpose. There has not – yet – been such a case in France, similar to Wikileaks; however, it might very well happen.

The important thing when it comes to cyberattack and hacking is to stick with facts instead of adopting a fantasy-like approach. For instance, the public has never complained about Wikileaks. A final point, the French electoral system has a very limited use of electronic votes; the French living abroad are the only small portion of the electorate which can vote electronically and only for the parliamentary elections. Therefore, there cannot be any hacking, the ultimate choice is that of the French people. Which brings us back to the real problem at stake, the fact that a segment of the public believes the trolls of the Russian media.

(Following publication of this interview, the French government has suspended this electronic vote on Friday 3rd March, in order to prevent hacking).

This article was translated from French by Strife’s BA Representative William Moray. You can find the French version here.

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