Obama Seeks to Reassure France’s Hollande About Spying

U.S. President Barack Obama sought to reassure French President Francois Hollande about the countries’ relations after a report that the National Security Agency eavesdropped on millions of phone calls inside France.

The two leaders spoke by phone yesterday to discuss U.S. intelligence gathering, according to a White House statement. The call took place amid outrage in France stirred by a Le Monde report that U.S. authorities had intercepted and recorded 70.3 million bits of telecommunications data from Dec. 10, 2012, to Jan. 8, 2013.

“The president and President Hollande discussed recent disclosures in the press -- some of which have distorted our activities and some of which raise legitimate questions for our friends and allies about how these capabilities are employed,” the White House said in its statement.

The call marked the latest instance of tensions with allies stoked by revelations about U.S. surveillance activities. The Le Monde report, based on information provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, led the Foreign Ministry in Paris to summon the U.S. ambassador yesterday.

“This type of practice between partners that intrudes on the private sphere is totally unacceptable,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters in Luxembourg yesterday. “We have to see to it very quickly that this practice ceases.”

Fabius is due to meet today with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who was in Paris for talks yesterday with Arab foreign ministers on Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Kerry said he and his French counterpart will discuss the surveillance issue just as they work closely on other matters.

‘Very Challenging’

While saying he couldn’t comment on U.S. intelligence activities, Kerry said yesterday that “lots of countries are engaged in the activity of trying to protect their citizens and the world.”

“Protecting the security of our citizens in today’s world is a very complicated, very challenging task and it is an every day, 24-7-365 task, unfortunately, because it there are lots of people out there seeking to do harm to other people,” Kerry said. Obama told the United Nations General Assembly that the U.S. is reviewing how it conducts its electronic intelligence activities, Kerry said.

During their phone call, Obama told Hollande that the U.S. is reviewing its intelligence-gathering practices, “so that we properly balance the legitimate security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share,” the White House said in its statement.

Espionage Charges

Allegations based on data provided by Snowden, who was granted asylum by Russia as he faces espionage charges in the U.S., have stirred tensions between the U.S. and countries including Germany and Brazil. Mexico’s government condemned the alleged hacking of the e-mail account of then-President Felipe Calderon in 2010, saying such actions are unacceptable and violate international law.

U.S. Ambassador Charles Rivkin met yesterday with Fabius’s chief of staff.

“We demanded that a tangible response to our concerns be forthcoming as soon as possible,” according to a ministry statement.

Kerry’s meeting today with Fabius “will mostly be about the situation in Syria and other regional matters, but this issue will also be discussed,” the ministry said in the statement, referring to alleged spying.

Le Monde said NSA targets included undersea cables and Internet infrastructure operated by Alcatel-Lucent SA and Wanadoo, now owned by Orange SA.

Undersea Cables

“Orange is working actively hand-in-hand with the French government,” said Estelle Ode-Coutard, a Paris-based spokeswoman for the company. Valerie La Gamba, a spokeswoman for Alcatel-Lucent, declined to comment in an e-mail.

In Mexico, the foreign ministry on Oct. 20 reiterated a call for the Obama administration to conduct an exhaustive investigation of NSA conduct.

“In a relationship between neighbors and partners, there’s no room for the practices that allegedly took place,” according to an e-mailed statement.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.