The evolution of the intelligence services around Europe. The case of France

The evolution of the intelligence services around Europe. The case of France

In 2017, we witnessed 24 jihadist attacks characterised by different features, such as a diversified modus operandi (little preparation for the attacks and use of vehicles or knives), and a massive use of social media (e.g. for recruitment). This shows a differentiation in the threat: more international, tech-enabled and interconnected.

The evolving terroristic threat led to a different perception of it. Since the Paris attacks in November 2015, the EU Member States started a phase of cooperation among them aiming at sharing information. [1]

The EU has an intelligence analysis centre since 2002, the EU IntCen, whose work is based on classified information sent to the Centre by national intelligence agencies. More recently, EU has started considering working on a range of policies to tackle new challenges. Among the new initiatives that are going to be adopted, one is related to the preparation of EU databases on security, borders and migration management, that need to be interoperable among them. But issues related to the data sharing were spotted. [2] One of these has been the unwillingness of member states to share and exchange information on security in the EU framework. Bilateral and multilateral agreements between states (involving EU and non-EU countries) have been more successful.

Europol, the European counterpart of the Interpol, has a problem in obtaining the information from the Member States, due to the difficulties in communicating with national and federal police forces. In 2016 Europol instituted the European Counter Terrorism Centre (ECTC) to facilitate interactions and effectively fight terrorism in Europe. It positions itself as the central information hub, to guarantee the development of the cooperation among states.

The EU adopted other measures aiming at achieving cooperation at the intergovernmental level.[3]

Intelligence service in France

If at European level it has been hard to develop a common intelligence policy, at national level some measures have been adopted and, in some cases, these led to rethinking how to redesign intelligence services. France is one of the Countries which had been forced to review its intelligence services, but without any major impact. The Country has been the main target of the latest terrorist attacks.

After the Paris attacks in November 2015, analysts pointed out that the French intelligence services were partially responsible for what happened. We heard the same stories after the attacks in Belgium, in Germany, in the UK and more recently in Spain.

Regarding France, the real eye-opener event has been the Nice attack on July 14th, 2016. It was in France again. It was the intelligence fault, again. The Nice attack arrived few days after the publication of an investigation led by the Investigation Committee responsible for the activities launched by the State against terrorism, set up after the 7 January 2015 (Commission d’enquête relative aux moyens mis en œuvre par l’État pour lutter contre le terrorisme depuis le 7 janvier 2015)[4]. The investigation highlighted the existence of breaches in the organisation and in the operational procedures of the French intelligence.

Firstly, it is important to explain that France has six different intelligence units linked to different ministries, such as Interior, Defence, and Finance. The vastity of the structure made impossible at the time of Charlie Hebdo attack and the following ones, to have immediate reactions by the units. As pointed out in the investigation, the agencies are different and each of them responds to different directors. Inevitably, this creates a lack of communication and information sharing. This lack of information is evident especially because of the existence of separated databases for each unit, that makes impossible cross-checking.

Few attempts to renew the intelligence services have been done.

The first most recent in a chronological term was in 2008. Nicolas Sarkozy, President of the French Republic during his mandate decided to merge the former Directorate of Homeland Security (Direction de Surveillance du Territoire, DST) with the Reinsegnements Généraux, the domestic agency. But this reform did not bring any result.

The latest one was started in 2013, because of the first terrorist attack led by a lone wolf, Mohamed Merah. The Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence (Direction centrale du renseignement intérieur, DCRI) became the General Directorate for Internal Security (Direction générale de la sécurité intérieure, DGSI). The new Agency is now in charge of counter-terrorism, counter-espionage, cybercrime, surveillance of potentially threatening groups, organisations, and social phenomena. [5] This reform aimed at the balancing of relations between the central Intelligence and the territorial one, without solving any problem: there has been a lightening of the structure, but the communication and the sharing policy remains the same. [6]

One of the main issue related to the breaches in communication is related to the Fiche “S”. The Fiche S (“S” Card) is an indicator used to flagged individuals considered dangerous to the national security of France. This law enforcement tool entered into force in 1969, in a total different context. The Fiche “S” proved to be insufficient today: the flagged individuals can be gangsters, anarchists, hooligans, and Islamist radicals. But this is a too big list, too varied and sometimes too hard to control, considering that being listed in the Fiche “S” does not mean being under arrest but just under control.

In addition to this, in many cases, it has been highlighted that one of the reasons why the intelligence agencies in France are not successful in reacting is due also to the not sufficient preparation of the agents involved in investigations. Most of them are not able to speak Arabic or they do not have a real idea of the political framework in which the investigation takes place.

All these elements together evidence the existence of structural internal divisions that are an obstacle for the implementation of a real security policy. The state of emergency, activated after November 2015, did not obtain the expected results, even if its extension guaranteed the set up of security enforcement measures, such as the military mission Sentinel.

The investigation, presented in July 2016, suggested the creation of a single agency controlled by the Prime Minister.[7]

The need to renew the intelligence agency was also part of the presidential campaign of 2017. Macron, who defeated Marine Le Pen and Le Front National, was supposed to bring a breath of fresh air with his new party En Marche!

Once elected he had to focus on the future of the state of emergency in the Country as well as what to do with the intelligence agency. After a month from his election, Macron mentioned his willingness to create the National Centre for Counterterrorism (Centre national du Contre-terrorisme, CNCT). The Centre, established on June 7th, 2017, is a special task force whose aim is to fight against terrorism. The cell is permanent with a parliamentarian vocation and is made up of about 50 to 100 agents. This Centre does not lighten the role and the tasks of the intelligence agency, but it is a part of it.[8]

When his 5-year term plan has been presented, President Macron put central in the programme the protection of domestic security. The differences between the two previous Presidents, Hollande and Sarkozy, were tangible. He announced last September his willingness in creating a “daily security force” as a branch of the police forces, whose aim is to face radicalisation. This meant the recruitment of 10,000 extra police and gendarmes that will be equipped with more technological tools, in the context of a new law enforcement policy perfectly contextualised in the digital era.

Another point in his plan is the set up of different initiatives to draw up a national plan against radicalisation involving different governmental departments.

The review of the Loi de Renseignement

The reform of secret services has been postponed, it seems. The introduction in the system of an ad hoc institution does not ameliorate the work of the services.[9]

With the expiration of the emergency state in France in November 2017 and the approval of the new anti-terror law, approved by the Senate in late October, the work of the French intelligence is now doubled.

Apart from the structural changes that need to be done to facilitate the work of the intelligence agencies in France, it might be important to review the Loi de Renseignement of 2015. This Law set up administrative and legal framework activities in which the competences of the Forces de Renseignement (Intelligence agencies) needed to be framed.  The law raised many controversies, and is probably the starting point for the restoration of the agency.

In addition to this, at a structural level, it might be important to offer to the agents the right tools to learn more about the investigation they have to pursue on the French territory or abroad. It might be useful to focus mostly on the HUMINT, human intelligence, and the OSINT, open source intelligence, as a basis for future investigation and analysis.

It might be suggested to create a common database among the French intelligence agencies to be integrated with a European one. The creation and integration of a database for the intelligence services in France will probably bring to think about the future of the Fiche “S”, in a way that will be easier to have under control the number of suspected jihadists, separated from suspected anarchists, for instance. It might be important, then, to consider including in the Fiche “S” also the monitoring of the cyberthreat and the alleged cyber terrorist groups, who are now on the verge of a new threat wave.

On top of this, to guarantee the evolution and the renewal of the intelligence services, in France as elsewhere in Europe, it is important to stress that: the shared good practices as well as common tools and procedures among intelligence agencies across Europe, would help the prevention and the creation of rapid responses in case of future attacks.


References and notes

[1] Wil van Gemert.  Europol and the EU Threat Picture: Developing a Global Response. The Washington Institute. March 21, 2018

[2] Nicolaj Nielsen. EU intelligence agency not a priority. EuObserver. September 8, 2017.

[3] Sajjan Gohel. The challenges of EU counter-terrorism cooperation. December 12, 2016.

[4] N° 3922 – Rapport d’enquête de M. Sébastien Pietrasanta relative aux moyens mis en oeuvre par l’Etat pour lutter contre le terrorisme depuis le 7 janvier 2015. Assemblée Nationale. July 5, 2016.

[5] Laurent Borredon. Réforme du renseignement : Manuel Valls choisit la continuité. Le Monde. June 17, 2016.

[6] Naim Montes. L’organisation des services de renseignement français. Association ProECA Sorbonne. May 28, 2017.

[7] Florance Floux. Lutte contre le terrorisme : La réforme des services de renseignement, une bonne idée ? July 5, 2016.

[8] Soren Seelow, Nathalie Guibert and Elise Vincent. Antiterrorisme : les missions de la « task force » de Macron se précisent. Le Monde. September 30, 2017.

[9] France24. Macron sets out counter-terror programme for next five years. October 18, 2017.