Spy scandal: ‘An awful lot of this is a show’

(By Deutsche Welle) Washington is doing diplomatic damage control after revelations the NSA spied on three French presidents. But Reginald Dale, formerly of the International Herald Tribune, tells DW that the outrage is mostly for show.

DW: Paris has summoned the US ambassador over allegations that Washington eavesdropped on the conversations of three French presidents. In 2013, Der Spiegel claimed that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell had been tapped. How have the reactions of France and Germany differed?

If you wanted to distinguish between the French and German reactions to this sort of thing, I would say the French reaction is basically cynical and hypocritical, whereas the Germans tend to be neurotic and distressed. It’s a totally different cultural reaction to these allegations or revelations.

What makes you say the French response is cynical and hypocritical?

The French response is cynical in the sense that they know their country does a lot of spying, in fact they would want it to. They think it should. They understand in the world we live in today, the Americans spy on them. That’s the way the world is and they don’t find it particularly reprehensible.

On the hypocritical side, the French are well known as the leaders in industrial espionage in Europe, particularly against the United States. There are lots of instances of the French obtaining information, secrets from the American defense and aerospace industries in particular.

In the 1990s, the French were supposed to have bugged the seatbacks in business class on Air France in the hope of picking up a confidential chitchat among American businessmen. That was of course denied, but it became a widespread – almost a joke.

Why do you say the German response is neurotic?

On the German side there is a deep neurosis for historical reasons because of the traumas resulting from the activities of the Gestapo and then the Stasi in eastern Germany. That’s always said to have bred a neurotic fear of any sort of snooping, particularly on individuals, which is why there was such a reaction when one of Chancellor Merkel’s cell phones was apparently bugged.

I think the Germans, unlike the French, feel a sense of betrayal about this. They spent all these years after World War Two rehabilitating themselves to become a model nation on the world stage, and they wanted approval from everyone, and they wanted particularly the friendship of the United States.

They believed they had won that approval and friendship, and then when they find they’re being spied on – the sense of betrayal like a stab in the back.

What do the German and French responses to US surveillance of their leaders say about the two countries’ relationships with Washington?

The French are obviously also a proud nation. They do feel they have to show some sort of outrage. But they’re also realistic about these sorts of things. They have a long history of espionage and have always had very good intelligence services. I don’t think these sort of things surprise them much. That’s life – “C’est la vie.”

The French have never minded stepping on American toes. They’ve been doing it ever since World War Two and that’s part of the game. French culture is very oriented toward show rather than actual substance, one might say, whereas German culture is more substantial and less flamboyant.

It would be true that the Germans would be more concerned about a public fight with the United States about this, or anything really, than the French would. Not least because the Germans have attached so much importance toward rebuilding their relationship with Washington over so many years.

The French like to cultivate the image of an independent nation and not be dependent on Washington or anyone else.

How do you expect this to play in French public opinion?

The French are very cynical about life in general, they wouldn’t be particularly surprised. I don’t think you’ll have a huge outcry other than from people who think that this is a good chance to make a fuss about the Americans. I don’t think deep down anyone is going to feel particularly outraged. They probably believed that it was happening anyways before these revelations came along.

President Obama reportedly promised to stop US surveillance of French leaders. Should the public take this promise seriously?

The wording I saw was exactly the same wording that they produced after the Angela Merkel cell phone allegations. Obviously Hollande has to demand some sort of apology in public, and Obama feels that he has to show some contrition and reassure France that they can trust the United States, and that the United States trusts France and that they’re great, close allies and will continue to be in the future. An awful lot of this is a show.

Reginald Dale spent most of his career as a foreign correspondent, commentator and senior editor for the Financial Times and the International Herald Tribune. He has been based in Brussels, London, Paris and Washington. He is currently director of the Williamsburg-CSIS Global Forum, senior fellow in the CSIS Europe Program, and director of the CSIS Transatlantic Media Network.

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