“Partners Do Not Spy on Each Other”

Top Secret Spy Letterpress Wedding Invitation

Nothing tests a relationship more than…spying.

Things between France and the United States were already a little tense lately. In free-trade talks that took place between the U.S. and Europe a few weeks ago, France had insisted on excluding its culture industry. It prompted collective eyeball-rolling, and not just in the US delegation—many European countries were also opposed to the idea that France should be able to carve out its own unique little clause of exceptionalism. But (as always) the real confrontation was with the United States, since the real motive of the clause was to protect the French market from too many American blockbusters.

France won that confrontation with the U.S.—or, at least, won the right to preserve a French exception. It’s the U.S. that actually came out with the upper hand. As has often been the case with French economic and trade policy, it makes for bad PR. Imposing that kind of non-negotiable condition, threatening to veto any agreement if France wasn’t given a guarantee, is hardly fair-play in the relationship handbook. It’s my way or no way, is not a great way to start off “talks”, and although the reasons for the exception are certainly defendable (and some big Hollywood players even defended them), it reinforced France’s image as too-often protectionist, with an over-developed sense of its cultural entitlement. It was hard to find much political support for the tactic and overall it wasn’t great diplomacy.

And then it turns out the United States has been spying on France. Which is really bad diplomacy. At best, it’s terribly poor form, at worst, it’s a diplomatic incident that could actually threaten to derail the ongoing trans-atlantic free-trade talks. Either way, in the Franco-American couple, suddenly France has the upper hand again! “Partners do not spy on each other,” said Viviane Reding, EU Justice Commissioner–that’s a pretty basic rule in the relationship handbook, too. President Hollande has had quite sharp words as well, demanding an explanation, and this time no one’s questioning France’s entitlement.

The French far left has been prompt–as always!–to respond to what looks to them like yet another American abuse of power, by suggesting that France go even further than outrage. The Green Party called on Mr. Hollande to grant the whistleblower, Edward Snowden, political asylum, saying that “it would allow France to remind the world that it intends to protect every whistleblower, regardless of his or her nationality.” Which, unpacked, actually means the following: “It would allow France to remind those arrogant, boorish Americans that despite their economic weight and their so-called special security concerns that allegedly justify all sorts of offensive measures, France isn’t going to take it lying down! France takes particular pride in human rights, which – don’t forget! – were created in France.” Or something like that.

The American defense so far has been to imply that, well, everybody spies. It’s just that the U.S. got busted (and that the scale of the spying is monumental). It’s like someone suddenly saying out loud what it looks like the United States has been thinking to itself all along: that we trust our friends, but not as much as we trust what we overhear our friends saying. Not what you want to hear from a partner. The National Security Agency can cite all sorts of terrorism and security concerns, but what this all uncomfortably looks like is an American sense of exceptionalism. An entitlement to do things our way, to take care of business however it needs to be taken care of, to assume that our security interests take precendence over pretty much anyone else’s rights.

“It’s an act of indescribable hostility!” raged the Fench Justice Minister, Christine Taubira. “This scandal reveals that even five years after the departure of Bush, America still poses as the supreme leader of the world,” denounced a conservative French lawmaker. Arrogant, heavy-handed, offensive, not to mention illegal: this spying affair has reinforced the United States’ reputation for self-righteousness and its own sense of entitlement. The French may be unreasonably protectionist, but the Americans are unbelievably presumptuous.

And when it comes to negotiating, what’s protecting a few hundred low-budget French movies compared to…stealing hundreds of millions of pieces of private data?

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