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France and economic intelligence


France is a pertinent example of a country where the State supports large national companies through its intelligence services. It further distinguishes itself with the transfer of knowledge from the intelligence community to the private sphere through the creation of organizations and training programs that have been enhanced by the experience of former members of the intelligence services. This process has allowed for the creation of a unique and original way of thinking when it comes to economic intelligence. However, the French intelligence services have prioritized counterterrorism, which has come with a reduction in the resources allocated to intelligence work in the economic sphere, in addition to the need to take on the new responsibilities arising from the spike in cyber espionage.

Keywords: France, intelligence services, economic intelligence, DGSE.


The strong growth experienced by international flows of capital and goods in recent decades, driven by the phenomenon of globalization, has given rise to a new competitive paradigm among global powers. In this newly established order, states not only face off over territorial issues, but also compete for market dominance1. The interests of large companies in a country thus become a strategic issue, particularly enterprises that are partially state-owned or belong to sectors of special relevance, such as energy or defence. For this reason, governments are developing different measures to support the interests of national companies abroad. Of these, diplomacy is the most visible, but the one that is particularly relevant due to its impact, although less well known, is the work of the intelligence services.

Compared with other countries, France stands out for the use of its intelligence services to benefit its companies. In addition, it has created its own original school of thought on the subject, with specialized academic institutions and programmes. In response to the notion of competitive intelligence, originating in the Anglo-Saxon world, France has developed the concept of economic intelligence. Although in a strict sense it is understood that this latter term designates the set of activities carried out by Governments and, more specifically, by intelligence services in support of domestic companies2, in France this expression has a broader application, expanding to include the military and civilian tactics, techniques and procedures derived from the intelligence community in the private sector. In addition, the French state currently has agencies specialized in economic intelligence, not only within the public administration, but also in the intelligence services.

These French tactics, known since the Cold War, are distinguished both by their aggressive character and by their effect on companies of economic rivals, even those from allied countries. In fact, in the early 1990s, concern in the United States regarding these tactics led to related details being leaked to the press, which provided an exceptional opportunity to learn about the nature of the operations.

The french foreign intelligence service during The Cold War.

The French intelligence services have defended the international interests of the country’s large companies since at least the 1960s. In a CIA report to the U.S. Senate intelligence committee in August 19663, Israel and France were singled out as the two allied countries that most resorted to spying on U.S. companies. In the French case, these actions were justified by the state involvement in large international companies, so that in practice the state intelligence community acted to the benefit of public companies.

The birth of the DGSE.

The French foreign intelligence service was reincarnated with its current name, the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE, Directorate-General for External Security) in 1982. A year earlier, François Mitterrand had claimed victory in the presidential election, the first socialist victory in France since 1958. Mitterrand mistrusted the then French foreign intelligence service, the Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-espionnage (SDECE, External Documentation and Counterespionage Service), which he considered a bastion of the French right wing.

On 17 June 1981, Pierre Marion was appointed director of SDECE4 and was entrusted with the demilitarisation of the external intelligence service, in view of the need to recruit and integrate civilian experts with skills in specific areas, such as linguistics or technology. Marion also took on the challenge of modernizing an agency with almost no technological capacity.

In his first meeting with President Mitterrand, Pierre Marion received three intelligence assignments: increasing espionage in communist countries, unmasking Soviet espionage networks in France, and expanding the intelligence service’s economic, industrial and technological competence5. Marion could, in turn, bring his experience of the corporate world, having worked for Air France, with whom he was posted in Japan and with responsibilities in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as Société Nationale Industrielle Aérospatiale (SNIAS), where he served as general manager for North America. Apparently, he had served as an external associate (honourable correspondent) for the French foreign intelligence service in both destinations.

After the creation of the DGSE on 2 April 1982, Marion found deep resistance among the veterans of the service, which would influence the duration of his tenure6. In spite of this, the DGSE enjoyed a number of successes under his leadership. One of the first achievements was the sale of forty Mirage 2000 fighter-bombers to India. France was competing with the United States and the Soviet Union for the sale of a new fighter plane to the Indian Air Force. The Nicobar network managed to have a source in the Indian prime minister’s office, with which it obtained essential information from the American7 offer that allowed the French plane to win out. The first Mirage 2000 was delivered to India in 19848.

Mirage 2000 fighter-bomber

The sale of Mirage 2000 fighter-bombers to India is considered one of the first successes in economic intelligence achieved by the Directorate General for External Security.

The end of the Cold War did not result in a cut in the DGSE’s budgets or a reduction in its operations, as might be expected from the so-called peace dividends, but quite the opposite: in 1992, the year after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the budget of this entity increased by 9% and its staff increased by a thousand9.

French economic espionage in the United States.

At the end of the 1980s, the DGSE worked together with the French internal services to recruit informants from employees in the French delegations of US technology companies such as IBM, Texas Instruments and Corning, the latter being a pioneer in the field of fibre optics10. The CIA and the FBI developed a joint operation between 1987 and 1989 to investigate the infiltration of workers in these companies and discovered that all three cases benefited the nationalised company Bull between 1982 and 1994.

The successive cases brought to light by the American press between the late 1980s and the mid-1990s reveal the extent and scope of the economic intelligence operations carried out by the DGSE both in the United States and against American companies in France, as well as the tactics employed.

In 1988, French DGSE agents identified the airport from which Boeing was to conduct test flights of the Boeing 747-400, whose air-to-ground communication was unencrypted, and intercepted the data transmitted by the prototype from a house close to the airport11. In addition, a group of French companies affiliated with Airbus tried buying a Boeing supplier with the intention of finding out ‘Boeing’s processes, capabilities, costs, specifications and future plans’12.

In 1991, executives of the US multinationals AT&T, NCR and GTE in Paris claimed documents and computer equipment with confidential business files were stolen from their hotel rooms13. This type of activity is carried out by a department of DGSE known as Service 7, although its name may have changed with time. One of its most famous actions consisted in the installation, in the seventies, of microphones in the seats of Air France commercial airplanes in order to listen in on American executives flying to France14.

On April 27, 1993, The Washington Post published a document, presumably of French origin15, detailing, by country and industrial sector, the intelligence requirements, indicating specific objectives and assigning them a priority from 1 to 3. In the field of US aerospace and defence, requirements ranged from information on Boeing’s commercial disputes with Airbus to Bell’s alliance strategies, technical details of the SDI, ATX and LHX16 program specifications and information on the prototypes of the Bell V-22 Osprey converter, the F-16 Agile fighter and the Boeing 757 and Boeing 767 commercial passenger aircraft. The day after its publication in the press, the matter was taken to the U.S. Congress by Representative Frank R. Wolf17.

That same year, the CIA urged forty-eight U.S. aerospace and defence companies not to attend the Paris-Le Bourget Air Show, the largest event of its kind in the world, in light of the threat of French18 espionage. While at the previous edition of the air show, held in 1991, the United States exhibited a sample of all the planes that had participated in the Gulf War, in 1993 it arrived with only two F-16 fighters.

Successive leaks to the US press give rise to suspicions of the existence of numerous counter-intelligence operations to curb the actions of the DGSE. James Woolsey, director of the CIA between 1993 and 1995, went so far as to claim in 1993 that intelligence operations against U.S. companies were the “hottest” issue after nuclear proliferation19.

However, American companies were not the only French target in that period. During the dispute between the German consortium AEG-Siemens, the Japanese conglomerate Mitsubishi and the French corporation GEC Alshtom over the South Korean high-speed train contract, the German group filed charges in 1993 over the interception of telephone and fax communications from its offices in Seoul. This operation had allowed the DGSE to obtain information on the cost calculation of the German project, and the French company was awarded the bid20.

Claude Silberzahn, director of the DGSE between 1989 and 1993, admitted to the espionage activity on foreign companies to benefit French ones in a 1996 television documentary. By way of explanation, he alluded to the fact that this kind of tactic is a resource for “all the secret services of large democracies” and that, in the French case, its justification is even greater given that the State owns or is a shareholder in many companies21.

The institutionalization of economic intelligence.

During the 1990s, a transfer of knowledge from intelligence services to private enterprises took place in France. It was the decade of the institutionalization of economic intelligence, which saw the proliferation of academic training curriculums, public bodies and companies centred on this matter.

Chirstian Harbulot

Chirstian Harbulot is considered in France the father of Economic Intelligence as an academic discipline.

In 1992, the Commissariat Général du Plan (CGP), an organisation responsible for economic planning in France22, set up a working group to study the economic and strategic intelligence of companies chaired by Henri Martre, honorary president of Aeróspatiale. Its formation was due to the perception that “the end of the Cold War, the emergence of new economic powers, the process of globalization of [economic] exchanges and the revolution of new technologies” were producing a transformation in the “logics of power, historically found in the military field, towards the economic sphere23”.

This working group encountered resistance within the CGP, fostered by the belief that with the end of the Cold War rivalry between powers was a thing of the past. The group demonstrated the usefulness of its approach when it presented to senior government and industry officials a study of the French bid to equip the Finnish air force with a new generation24. fighter aircraft. The bid was awarded in January 1991 to the American aircraft McDonnell Douglas F-1825, and the case study presented by the Martre Commission revealed the shortcomings in the information management of the French candidature, which competed with the fighter-bomber Mirage 2000-5.

That same year, two experts from this commission were asked to create a think tank concerned with economic intelligence. INTELCO was born as an intelligence cell of the French public consortium COGEPAG26, dedicated to providing training and maintenance services to client countries of the French arms industry. INTELCO was founded by General Jean Pichot-Duclos, who had previously held the position of director of the École Interarmées du Renseignement et des Études Linguistiques (Inter-military School of Intelligence and Linguistic Studies) in collaboration with Christian Harbulot, who would be considered “creator of the concept of Economic Intelligence in France”27.

INTELCO was created with the objective of promoting the concept of economic intelligence in France through events sponsored by the Institut des Hautes Études de Défense Nationale and through agreements with universities, as well as providing services to institutions and companies28. Some of INTELCO’s first projects were reports for the organisations within France’s Ministry of Defence. A report for the Délégation aux Affaires Stratégiques (DAS, Strategic Affairs Delegation)29 anticipated several current relevant trends in economic intelligence, in particular, the merging of military and civilian methodologies, the crossover of open sources and conventional intelligence, influence strategies and information warfare30.

The impact obtained by INTELCO led to a change in its hierarchical dependence within the COGEPAG holding company. INTELCO was born within the company STRATCO, headed by General François Mermet, who had been director of the DGSE between 1987 and 1989 and then became a government advisor and in charge of reorganising French military intelligence.

Two years after its creation, in February 1994 the Martre Commission published a report31 in which it presented a comparative study of the intelligence systems of other countries in the past and present, as well as an analysis of the weaknesses and strengths of the French system. The document sought to lay the foundations for the creation of an original, autochthonous model of economic intelligence. Hence, the deliberate choice to use the term economic intelligence to replace the Anglo-Saxon derived competitive intelligence. In the so-called Martre report several recommendations were included; offering specialised training in economic intelligence figured high on the list.

Pichot-Duclos and Harbulot ended up encountering excessive resistance from the management of the COGEPAG holding company and the subsidiary companies32, which led them to assume the need to create a new project to offer training in strategy and intelligence to senior business executives and future executives.

In 1997 the École de Guerre Économique (School of Economic Warfare) was born, established as an academic institution attached to the École Supérieure Libre des Sciences Commerciales Appliquées (Free Superior School of Applied Commercial Sciences), a Parisian business school, and built on the previous work of the two founders of INTELCO. It currently offers postgraduate training in areas such as Strategy and Economic Intelligence or Risk Management, International Security and Cybersecurity. According to the school itself, one of the pillars of its model has been “the transfer of methodology from the military world to the civilian world”33.

Lastly, there is one more piece of the French economic intelligence system. The Agence pour la Diffusion de l’Information Technologique (ADIT, Information Technology Diffusion Agency) was created in 1992 with the aim of systematising the collection and dissemination of technological information collected by French embassies, as well as developing groups specialised in economic intelligence within the French administration. This agency has been run since 1994 by Philip Caduc, colonel of the French gendarmerie reserves and, since 2012, president of the Syndicat Français de l’Intelligence Économique (SYNFIE, French Economic Intelligence Syndicate)34.

ADIT became a corporation in 2003 and, after several changes of ownership, the French State currently only owns 10% of its shares. It has regional offices in China, India, Iraq and Argentina and two main business areas: advising large French companies in their internationalization (business intelligence and diplomacy) and regional authorities in the search for business opportunities (regional intelligence).

ADIT’s senior management included senior members of the DGSE and the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST). In 2018, ADIT acquired the security and intelligence company GEOS35, chaired by the general in reserve Didier Bolelli36, former chief of operations of the DGSE and also former director of French military intelligence.

French economic intelligence in the 21st century

The turn of the century, especially after the events of 11 September 2001, saw Salafist-Jihadist terrorism become a central issue on the international agenda. That threat became the top priority of the French intelligence services, with a consequent reduction in economic intelligence efforts. In addition, a new dimension in the field of intelligence came onto the scene: cyber espionage.

The new terrorist threat led to one of the most important restructurings of the French intelligence services, with the merger of the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST, Territorial Surveillance Directorate) and Renseignements Genéraux (RG, General Intelligence)37 to form in 2008 the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur (Central Directorate of Internal Intelligence) which, in turn, underwent a further reorganisation in 2014 to become Direction Générale de la Sécurité Intérieure (DGSI, General Directorate of Internal Security), reporting directly to the Minister of the Interior.

The RG was attributed with a good local presence throughout France and a good connection with entrepreneurs, which was lost after its disappearance. Pierre de Bousquet de Florian, director of the DST between 2005 and 2007, upon assuming the position decried the fact that French entrepreneurs could not be expected to ask the organization for help given it was so secret that it did not have a listed telephone number.

Given the priority given to the fight against terrorism and the diminishing effectiveness of internal intelligence in successive reorganizations, during that time there was a general perception that the French State ceased to support its large companies38. To this was added the progressive privatization of public companies and the withdrawal of the State from publicly listed companies.

In 2003, at the request of the Prime Minister, Bernard Carayon drafted a report on the state of French economic intelligence39. It presented 38 recommendations, including the improvement of inter-ministry coordination, the expansion of educational training and the regional application of economic intelligence. In short, it sought to warn of the need for the State to promote policies that would actively defend competitiveness and develop a strategic vision that would allow France to occupy a prominent position in the world40.

However, a succession of failed operations generated some lack of confidence in the ability of the French Government and the DGSE to respond to the needs of the country’s companies. In general, the business community felt the reaction times of the DGSE were too slow, more typical of the public than of the private sector and, therefore, incapable of satisfying the needs of businesses41. For example, in 2006 the French intelligence services failed to anticipate the purchase of Arcelor42 by the Indian steel company Mittal via a takeover bid, which led to the formation of the world’s largest company in the sector. Similarly, in 2011 they were unable to prevent the construction contract of the Saudi high-speed line between Mecca and Medina43 from being awarded to a consortium composed mainly of Spanish companies, which won out over the French, who were led by the companies Alstom and SNCF. On the other hand, the general manager of China Eastern Airlines, during a visit in 2010 to the Airbus facilities in Toulouse, reported that a briefcase belonging to him was interfered with while he was in his hotel room44, a practice to which French intelligence regularly resorted, as revealed by the former director of the CIA, Robert Gates, in 201445.

Saudi AVE

The victory of a Spanish consortium in the Saudi AVE project between Mecca and Medina is perceived in France as a failure of its intelligence services.

A government decree in 2013 made public the internal structure of the DGSE, which has one of its four divisions dedicated to economic intelligence, known as Service de Sécurité Économique (Economic Security Service). This unit includes liaisons that advise large French companies, as well as those with international interests, especially when they belong to strategic sectors46 such as defence, energy and infrastructure. Thus, in the case of defence contracts, an “operating room” is set up with the participation of members of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defence and Economy.

The DGSI also has a department specifically dedicated to economic intelligence, called Sous-direction K (Sub-directorate K). The organization expanded its workforce in 2015 with 500 new hires, including, for the first time, civilian professionals47.

As a result of these perceived shortcomings and failures, various movements took root in the French administration. In 2016, the Service de l’Information Stratégique et Sécurité Économiques (SISSE, Strategic Information and Economic Security Service) was created, under the auspices of the Ministry of the Economy, as a result of the merger of two bodies dedicated to economic intelligence—one under the Ministry of the Economy and the other under the Prime Minister—and which has gained greater relevance within the administrative structure. Its main objectives are aimed at “reinforcing the action carried out in favour of the protection and promotion of the fundamental economic, industrial and scientific interests of the nation, as well as securing the means of France’s economic sovereignty”48. Additionally, in 2018 the parliamentary commission on intelligence devoted its annual report exclusively to economic intelligence. Unlike other annual reports, its content was restricted, although it was possible for the press to analyse it as it was available for a limited period of time. The report recommended the creation of a committee under the Prime Minister to be in charge of the inter-ministerial coordination of the different public bodies, in order to enhance their effectiveness49.

Intelligence on the internet.

The other great novelty in the general field of intelligence that has affected France in the 21st century, apart from the emergence of the Salafist-Jihadist terrorist threat, is the emergence of the Internet as the main means of mass communication.

According to the US intelligence community, in 2013 France was part of the group of countries “extensively involved in industrial espionage” and ranked second, behind China, along with Russia and Israel, in terms of the use of aggressive cyber espionage practices50.

In 2009, the Canadian Communications Security Establishment detected a case of malicious software (malware) that it named Babar, after a French cartoon character. The organisation stated with “moderate certainty” in 2011 that the operation had been launched by a state entity, namely a “French intelligence agency”51. Babar’s targets appeared to be Iranian bodies related to the nuclear programme, some European supranational entities and other targets in francophone African and European countries, including Spain52.

Babar interacted with office automation software, messaging and videoconferencing to obtain documents and intercept communications. Subsequently, at least one evolved version of this software was detected, which was related to a larger operation carried out by the Granja Animal group53, so dubbed by cybersecurity experts alluding to the names of the fictional animals used by the programmers of the malicious software to designate the code.

The confirmation of French cyber espionage activities occurred by chance. Bernard Barbier, former technical director of the DGSE, gave a talk in September 2016 to engineering students at the École Centrale in Paris54, revealing details of various operations. Barbier mentioned a French cyber espionage operation targeting several countries, including Canada, Spain and several countries in Francophone Africa, which coincides with the detected activity of Babar malware.


France is particularly notable for its use of intelligence services for the benefit of its companies. Its case is even more unique due to the large volume of information available about these measures, as can be seen in the reports of its economic rivals. The absence of information on other territories does not mean that France is the only country to carry out aggressive operations against its economic rivals; on the contrary, these practices are common in other countries with a large number of public companies operating abroad or where there also exists a blurred line between the public and private sectors, such as Russia and China. The French case is also distinguished by the constant public questioning to which this activity is subjected, when by contrast it is common in other countries for these operations to be carried out discreetly. Additionally, the French government serves as an international benchmark of economic intelligence by virtue of the prestige attained by public bodies and educational institutions dedicated to this subject.

Several lessons can be learned from the French case. The first of these lies in the natural assumption that the intelligence services must support the activities of the country’s large companies abroad and carry out counterintelligence work in the national territory. This pattern is reflected in the movement of veteran personnel from the French military intelligence and intelligence services to large companies and training centres. Suffice it to point out the importance that the successive directors of the DGSE have had in the development of the discipline of economic intelligence in France.

The second is the high degree of institutionalisation of economic intelligence within the French government and public companies, with entire organisations and companies focusing exclusively on this subject. The existence of specialised training centres, specific academic qualifications and professional organisations that ensure continuous education and the transfer of information between companies and professionals is particularly noteworthy.

Finally, the analysis of the inner workings of these agencies in other countries makes it possible to increase the awareness among executives of Spanish companies of the true nature of economic competition in international markets, which in France is regarded as a real “economic war”54.


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  • 1If geopolitics focused on the study of territorial rivalries, geo-economics seeks economic supremacy (Olier, 2011: 19-33).
  • 2Diaz Matey, 2018: 24-26.
  • 3Quoted in Nasheri, 2005: 15-16.
  • 4For a review of his career path, see Arboit, 2015.
  • 5Konstantopoulos, 2010: 28).
  • 6In his memoirs, Marion (1991) denounces the lack of support from the Government.
  • 7Balachandran, 2013.
  • 8Bobb, 1984.
  • 9Waller, 1992.
  • 10Scheweizer (1993: 21; 124-125) and Stewart (1994: 9-10).
  • 11Scheweizer, op. cit.: 122-124.
  • 12Tucker, 1997.
  • 13Blood, 2002: 231.
  • 14Dickey, 1991.
  • 15Mintz, 1993.
  • 16Respectively, the Strategic Defence Initiative, the 5th Generation fighter plane program that successfully developed the F-22 Raptor, and the failed stealth helicopter program RAH-66 Comanche.
  • 17House of Representatives, 1993.
  • 18United States, 1996.
  • 19Doyle, 1993.
  • 20Schmid, 2011: 214.
  • 21Karacs, 1996.
  • 22Created in 1946 by General De Gaulle, it was replaced in 2006 by the Centre d’Analyse Strategique (Strategic Analysis Centre) and in 2013 by the Commissariat Général à la Stratégie et à la Prospective (General Commissariat for Strategy and Prospective), attached to the Prime Minister’s office.
  • 23“Rapport Martre: Intelligence économique et strategie des entreprises”, 2013.
  • 24«Hommage à Henri Martre, un des pères fondateurs de l’IE en France”», 2018.
  • 25“F/A-18 Hornet, undated.
  • 26Currently DCI.
  • 27“Christian Harbulot, 2018.
  • 28Gagliano, 2018.
  • 29Called Direction Générale des Relations Internationales et de la Stratégie (Directorate General for International Relations and Strategy) since 2015.
  • 30Harbulot, 1999.
  • 31Martre, Clerc and Harbulot, 1994.
  • 32Cometto, 2007.
  • 33See “The School of Economic Warfare,” undated.
  • 34“Philippe Caduc”, 2018.
  • 35Wanlin, 2018.
  • 36Lancrenon, 2019.
  • 37Directorate of Territorial Surveillance and General Intelligence, respectively.
  • 38Fansten and Le Devin, 2016.
  • 39Carayon, 2003.
  • 40Delbecque, 2003.
  • 41Drif, 2018.
  • 42The Arcelor group was created in 2001 by the merger of Arbed (Luxembourg), Lusinor (France) and Aceralia (Spain). The latter was the product of Altos Hornos de Vizcaya and Altos Hornos del Mediterraneo.
  • 43Espinosa, 2019.
  • 44Cohadon, 2010.
  • 45Keck, 2014.
  • 46“DGSE’s corporate intelligence brief, 2013.
  • 47“DGSI’s K department beefed up, 2016.
  • 48Centre Français de Recherche sur le Renseignement, no date.
  • 49“Once taboo, economic intelligence gains ground in Macro’s France”, 2018
  • 50Nakashima, 2013
  • 51Untersinger and Follorou, 2014
  • 52Rodríguez and Sánchez, 2018
  • 53GReAT, 2015 and Paganini, 2015.
  • 54Follorou, 2016
  • 55Harbulot, 2013.