Accueil arrow Notes historiques arrow French Intelligence and Security Services in 2016 : A Short History


Eric Denécé



The French Intelligence Services' Historical and Cultural Context

With the exception of a few isolated incidents during the Middle Ages, we can say that the French intelligence services were born in the 15th century.

Louis XI (1423-1483) emerges from the pages of history as the first French monarch to make use of intelligence as a matter of course. By doing so, he consolidated royal powers. The 15th century also saw the rise of secret writing, the use of which quickly spread throughout the kingdom. Francis I (1494-1547) followed by Henry IV (1553-1610) both called on the services of mathematicians (de la Bourdaizière, Viète) to decode secret messages sent by their adversaries. In 1586, Blaise de Vigenère invented a method of encryption that remained unbreakable for a long time.

French intelligence underwent substantial expansion under Cardinal Richelieu (1624-1642) with the Cardinal contributing to the emergence of France as the leading European power of the 17th and 18th centuries. The three missions that Richelieu gave to the « secret services » were as follows: to undermine the House of Habsburg; to suppress any plots fomented by the nobility in liaison with enemy powers; and to dismantle the protestant organisation in France. In addition, the cardinal also founded a clandestine office, called the « Cabinet noir », a secret cell in charge of intercepting postal correspondence between French nobility and foreign courts. Mazarin (1601-1661), who succeeded him, inherited these networks and know-how.

Fresh impetus was given to French intelligence under the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715), thanks to Colbert who developed economic intelligence and who sent agents to neighbouring states in order to steal industrial secrets. The Sun King also sent his agents to infiltrate the English court; they spurred on Charles II to declare war on Holland in 1672, to the benefit of France's European policy

Acutely aware of the importance of clandestine operations for foreign policy, Louis XV (1715-1774) created an intelligence service and set up a 'back channel' diplomacy structure known as the King's Secret, or « Secret du Roi ». This secret organisation operated for nearly twenty years on a clandestine basis, unbeknownst to government ministers and the Court. This was a fully-fledged intelligence and action service with multiple ramifications. The service intercepted and read the letters of foreign diplomats and the French nobility. It recruited agents and distributed funds in Poland, Sweden, Constantinople and Saint Petersburg. While the most famous agents were the Chevalier d'Eon, Vergennes and Breteuil, other famous figures also took part in clandestine operations, including the philosopher Voltaire. In 1742, Voltaire was tasked with poisoning Frederick II, the King of Prussia, with whom he was a friend. France was also very active in the field of economic intelligence, in particular the collection of British industrial secrets. Louis XV sent agents across the Channel who were trained to spy on and recruit specialised craftsmen. In response to these covert actions, the British passed a law prohibiting the emigration of certain qualified artisans, but French operations continued nonetheless. 

At the death of Louis XV, the policy of clandestine operations continued. Ably assisted by his Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Count of Vergennes - a former member of the "Secret du Roi" -, Louis XVI continued to procure intelligence from neighbouring European states throughout the length of his reign. Most importantly, he provided support to American "revolutionaries", providing not only political support but also intelligence, weapons and finally an expeditionary force. This clandestine operation in support of the colonies across the Atlantic and to destabilise the British Empire was France's response to the defeat it had suffered at the hands of England during the Seven Year War (1756-1763), which led to the loss of its first colonial empire.

During the Revolution, the French intelligence system was mainly directed towards domestic enemies (Royalists, Chouans, Vendeans) and their foreign supporters, in particular England, which sought to avenge France's operations in America. From 1792 to 1799, the ongoing domestic threat led to the creation of secret police and counter-espionage activities. Leaders of the French Revolution did not neglect foreign intelligence and French operatives were particularly active in Holland, Germany, Italy and Egypt. In addition, the National Committee for Public Safety did not hesitate in using subversive actions, in particular in 1798, in response to English manoeuvres. The French Republic attempted to precipitate an Irish uprising against London, with the help of a French contingent of soldiers sent to the island, but the operation failed.

Napoleon made constant use of intelligence for his campaigns during the Revolution and the Empire. The Emperor sought to know all he could about his enemies and his future theatres of operations. He believed that a « well-placed spy is worth twenty thousand soldiers ». Keen on operational intelligence, he demanded from his intelligence « services » detailed knowledge of itineraries, the state of roads, provisions that could be found en route and above all intelligence on enemy forces.

At the summit of operations, the General Headquarters steered the work of information acquisition, the centralisation of intelligence and intelligence analysis. On the ground, all the commanders of the armed forces had an intelligence desk. Intelligence reports on foreign armies were drafted down to battalion level, and updated on a daily basis. Foreign letters were frequently intercepted, and the work of the clandestine office was carried out by a large number of code-breakers and linguists. But the key element of Napoleon's intelligence system was a man named Charles-Louis Schulmeister, a skilful counterfeiter from Alsace. In a few short years, he developed networks throughout the German-speaking world, with agents operating in Austria and as far away as Hungary. He carried out remarkable penetration and disinformation campaigns using false identities. The intelligence that he gathered contributed to Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz. 

The Emperor did not limit the actions of his intelligence services to Europe; he extended the intelligence network to Latin America, which he hoped at one point to conquer. In 1809 he set up an intelligence and action network with agents operating out of Mexico, New Orleans and California. They succeeded in causing an uprising in 1811 that almost drove the Spanish out of Mexico.

Under the Empire, the French domestic intelligence service was especially active, in particular in terms of monitoring the opposition and counter-espionage. In 1799, the Minister of Police, Fouché, set up an implacable secret police force that quashed conspiracies and spied on foreign nationals. As of 1801, the Gendarmerie was also involved in counter-espionage. The desire to neutralise clandestine actions by enemy powers gave rise to covert operations. On the night of October 24, 1804, some one hundred French soldiers came ashore on the Prussian coast. They abducted Sir Rumbold, the British ambassador in Hamburg in charge of many espionage and subversion operations in France. This operation allowed the French to dismantle the entire English spy network in northern Europe.

After the fall of Napoleon, the Restoration government took it upon itself to erase all traces of the imperial intelligence network. As a result, the French intelligence community was in disarray for some time. From 1815 to 1870, there was no permanent intelligence structure in operation. At different moments, small ad hoc services were established but none lasted for any considerable period of time. Intelligence was totally neglected by the French Armies Chief of Staff and counter-espionage was almost non-existent. As a result, the intelligence capabilities of France were weaker in the middle of the 19th century than they were a century earlier.

On the eve of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, France did not have an intelligence service worthy of the name, nor any long-term agents active in Germany, while the Prussians had substantially developed their espionage networks. Consequently, the French Army began the war with a lack of actionable intelligence and suffered a series of defeats during a conflict that saw France lose Alsace and Lorraine.

France founded the Deuxième Bureau in March 1874. At the end of the 19th century the country was engulfed in a wave of nationalism and anti-semitism. It is against this backdrop that the intelligence services became involved in the Dreyfus scandal (1894), so called after the Jewish officer wrongly accused of being a German spy. This scandal would divide France and severely damage military intelligence: counter-espionage (Contre-espionnage - CE) was taken away from the military and fell under the jurisdiction of the police.

Beginning in 1881, French encryption methods underwent an unprecedented process of modernisation. The Army conducted important decoding work and tested radiotelegraphy as part of intelligence acquisition.  The establishment in July 1912, of the Cypher Section at the War Ministry meant that France was the best-prepared country in this field when the First World War began. Starting in 1915, telephone wiretaps provided a huge amount of intelligence. The Deuxième Bureau was able to obtain advance warning of the tactical commands of France's enemies thanks to its foreknowledge of German plans. Human intelligence was not overlooked either: during one of his clandestine missions, an agent was able to observe a chemical arms test. Thanks to this intelligence, French gas masks were manufactured prior to the Verdun offensive (February 1916), thus saving the lives of thousands of soldiers.

When the war ended in 1918, French intelligence had undergone considerable change and now had solid experience. However, the intelligence community was still the poor relation of the armed forces, lacking resources and prestige. Moreover, during the period between the wars, politicians showed little interest in intelligence work. As a result, the period between the wars saw another period of decline. Nevertheless, despite the lack of human and financial resources allocated to the intelligence community, the Deuxième Bureau was, as of the mid nineteen-thirties, extremely well informed about Germany, its intelligence services and cryptography methods.

At the outset of the World War II, the Intelligence Service (Service de renseignement - SR) succeeded in breaking German encryption codes. As of 1931, one of its agents in Germany, Hans-Thilo Schmidt, provided the service with a user manual for the Enigma machine and code books. The first complete decoding of an encrypted message took place on January 17, 1940. During the German offensive in France, the Cipher Bureau (Service du chiffre) set up operations in the Free Zone with one of the machines that it had safeguarded and continued to listen in on enemy communications. The intelligence obtained was transmitted on a daily basis to the English services. Then, after the armistice of June 1940, all the French archives and knowledge were handed over to the British code breakers. Thanks to them, but also due to work carried out prior to the war by Polish intelligence, the English were able to decode as of May 1940 the messages of the Luftwaffe, then of the Kriegsmarine (1941) and finally of the Wehrmacht (1942). It was one of France's major contributions to the Allied victory. The decoding of messages sent between the German Navy and its submarines shortened the Battle of the Atlantic by several months and interceptions of the Luftwaffe enabled the Allies to prepare for air raids during the Battle of Britain.

Simultaneously, as of June 1940, the SR and CE relaunched espionage operations from the Free Zone. During the invasion of the south of France in November 1942, the two organisations went underground. From Algiers, they maintained liaisons with networks active in occupied France, provided intelligence to the British and Americans, participated in misleading the German forces as to Allied intentions and prepared for the rebuilding of the country as they awaited the Liberation. In North Africa, French counter-espionage services literally annihilated German intelligence and sabotage networks.

In 1942, General de Gaulle set up the Central Bureau for Intelligence and Action (Bureau central de renseignement et d'action - BCRA) in London, to participate in the clandestine struggle against the Germans. This service sent many agents into France, provided support to the resistance movements, and also provided an impressive amount of intelligence.

In this way, between 1940 and 1945, French services provided a considerable mass of information to the Allies. Their monthly intelligence production in 1943-1944, reached 200,000 pages, 60,000 maps, 10,000 photographs. This is truly substantial, especially when we consider the conditions under which this intelligence was gathered. Bill Donovan, the head of the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS), told Roosevelt in 1945 that the BCRA provided 80% of the intelligence used to prepare the D-Day landings in Normandy. 

At the end of World War II, the intelligence services that exist to this day were established, even though the different agencies have often changed their names. The Service for External Documentation and Counter-espionage (Service de documentation extérieure et de contre-espionnage - SDECE) and the Directorate for the Surveillance of the Territory  (Direction de la Surveillance du territoire - DST) were both set up in 1946, in charge respectively of foreign intelligence and counter-intelligence. However, the situations in which France found itself engaged during the second half of the twentieth century (Indochina, Algeria, Africa) would make the SDECE an intelligence service more directed towards clandestine operations than to intelligence research. 

The SDECE played an active role in all the decolonisation conflicts, conducting numerous intelligence and action operations in Africa and the Far East. By contrast, its activities in Eastern Europe against the Soviet enemy were limited as it could only dedicate a small portion of its resources. It was renamed the General Directorate for External Security (Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure - DGSE) in April 1982. The DST was effective against Moscow's agents, and even succeeded in recruiting a high-level source within the KGB.

The major event that led to a reform of French intelligence was the emergence of terrorism. This threat did not begin with the attacks of September 11, 2001. At the beginning of the 1980's France had already created specialist intelligence cells within the agencies (DST and DGSE) and at the Interior Ministry with the Anti-Terrorist Coordination Unit (Unité de coordination de lutte antiterroriste - UCLAT). France also updated its anti-terrorist legislative arsenal. France has long-standing expertise in counter-terrorism and its services are full of seasoned professionals with experience stretching back to the troubles in Algeria in 1954, as well as to the fight against Arab terrorism, both on French soil and abroad.

As of 1991, the threat grew on account of the situation in Algeria where the Armed Islamic Groups (Groupes islamiques armés - GIA) were fighting to takeover the country and directly threatening France. Afterwards, the Roubaix Gang affair (1996) revealed profound changes to the threatscape; these home grown terrorists were no longer affiliated to the Algerian GIA, but were rather immigrants to France or French-born converts to radical Islam, and had trained in Bosnia or Afghanistan.

Simultaneously, at the time of the First Gulf War (1991), the French expeditionary corps found itself with little operational intelligence compared to the Americans. The units deployed only had one civilian Spot satellite to monitor the battlefield. The lessons of this experience were quickly learnt. In 1992, the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces founded the Directorate of Military Intelligence (Direction du renseignement militaire - DRM). It would be frequently expanded over the next ten years, in particular during the military campaigns in Bosnia (1995) and Kosovo (1999), significantly developing its technical intelligence acquisition capabilities.

After the attacks on New York and Washington (2001), Madrid (2004) and London (2005), France decided to reorganise its intelligence services and both personnel numbers and resources increased. In 2008, under the impulsion of President Sarkozy, the DST and part of the Central Directorate for General Information (Direction centrale des renseignements généraux - DCRG), a service in charge of domestic intelligence, were merged to create the Central Directorate of Domestic Intelligence (Direction central du renseignement intérieur - DCRI), which was renamed the General Directorate for Internal Security (Direction générale de la sécurité intérieure - DGSI) in 2014.

Acts of terrorism perpetrated in Toulouse (2012) and Paris (january 2015) led to further reforms and a significant increase in the number of personnel within the intelligence community. By 2018, the French intelligence community will grow from 14,000 to 16,000 servicemen and women.

The Services' Intelligence Structure
in 2016

France in 2015 has six intelligence agencies as well as several other services that contribute to the collection of intelligence.

The six agencies designated as official intelligence services are:

- the General Directorate for External Security (Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure - DGSE). With a staff of 5,000 servicemen and women, the DGSE is the largest of the French intelligence services. It is in charge of obtaining intelligence abroad pertaining to the security of France, as well as detecting and preventing acts of espionage and terrorism against French interests. One of the characteristics of the DGSE is that it is an "integrated service", i.e. a small intelligence community unto itself that combines human intelligence collection, technical intelligence research, analysis and action. In intelligence services elsewhere, these different skill-sets usually work for separate agencies.

- the mission of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (Direction du renseignement militaire - DRM) - with a staff of 1,700 servicemen and women - is to provide intelligence to the armed forces on operations. It steers and coordinates the intelligence resources of the three armed forces and is in charge of imagery intelligence (earth observation satellites).

- the Defence Intelligence and Security Directorate (Direction du renseignement et de la sécurité de la Défense - DPSD) has a staff of 1,100 servicemen and women. It is active nationwide and in all theatres where French forces are deployed. Its missions include security intelligence, security and protection of armed forces, protection and security of IT systems and of Defence-related economic and industrial assets.

- the General Directorate for Internal Security (Direction générale de la Sécurité intérieure - DGSI) has a staff of 3,600 servicemen and women. Its mission is to fight on French soil all activities likely to constitute an attack against the fundamental interests of the nation: subversion, violent extremism, espionage and terrorism.

- the National Directorate for Customs Intelligence and Investigations (Direction nationale du renseignement et des enquêtes douanières - DNRED), has a staff of 800 and is in charge of the collection of intelligence related to international trafficking of all kinds (arms, drugs, contraband).

- the Financial Intelligence Unit (Traitement du renseignement et action contre les circuits financiers clandestins - TRACFIN) is the national intelligence service for the fight against the laundering of capital and the financing of terrorism (100 staff members).

The DGSE, DRM and DPSD are attached to the Ministry of Defence, the DGSI is attached to the Ministry of the Interior and the DNRED and TRACFIN are attached to the Ministry of Economy and Finance. In total, the French intelligence community has nearly 14,000 personnel. With reinforcements announced in the wake of the January 2015 attacks, that number will rise to 16,000 by 2018.


In addition to the six intelligence services, several other agencies contribute to the collection of security-related intelligence:

- The Central Service for Territorial Intelligence (Service central du renseignement territorial - SCRT) with 2,000 staff members is attached to the National Police and is in charge of monitoring militant and protest movements and violent political dissent.

- The Intelligence Directorate of the Prefecture of Police (Direction du renseignement de la Préfecture de Police - DRPP) has 800 staff members and is in charge of anti-terrorism and anti-subversion intelligence for the Greater Paris Region (12 million inhabitants).

- The Department of Intelligence and Analysis on Organised Crime (Service d'information, de renseignement et d'analyse stratégique sur la criminalité organisée - SIRASCO) was founded in 2009 and is in charge of monitoring all transnational criminal organisations that operate on French soil. It is also attached to the National Police.

- The Gendarmerie nationale also participates in intelligence work via its Sub-Directorate for Operational Planning (Sous-direction de l'anticipation opérationnelle - SDAO) which is active in all French departments and has its own Counter-Terrorism Desk (Bureau de lutte antiterroriste - BLAT).

- Finally, the prison authorities (Ministry of Justice) has an Intelligence desk called MI3, with only a few dozen staff members, in charge of monitoring the most dangerous inmates, in particular Islamic radicals. 

The specialist services and other agencies contributing to intelligence collection are steered and coordinated through a range of structures.

- The National Security and Defence Council (Conseil de Défense et de Sécurité nationale - CDSN) presided by the Head of State and comprised of the Prime Minister and the Ministers of Defence, Interior, Economy, Budget and Foreign Affairs, is in charge of defining the operational guidelines and setting priorities with regard to military, intelligence, domestic security and anti-terrorism operations.

- The General Secretariat for National Defence and Security (Secrétariat général de la Défense et de la Sécurité nationale - SGDSN) is an inter-ministerial coordinating body in charge of all cases relating to the domestic and external security of the country. It ensures the secretariat of the National Security and Defence Council.

- The National Intelligence Coordinator (Coordinateur national du renseignement - CNR), answers directly to the President of the Republic and acts as the President's intelligence advisor. He is in charge of defining the strategic guidelines and priorities for the intelligence community, to ensure that the services have the necessary means at their disposal (personnel, budget), to coordinate their actions and to ensure proper cooperation between the services.

- The Anti-Terrorist Coordination Unit (Unité de coordination de lutte antiterroriste - UCLAT) is attached to the Interior Ministry and is in charge of coordinating the anti-terrorist fight between all state agencies. 

- Finally, the Intelligence Academy (Académie du renseignement) is in charge of the development of inter-agency training programs, where the different services learn to know each other better and to enhance inter-agency cooperation.

The Oversight Role 

Lagging behind other Western countries, France finally established a parliamentary delegation in charge of overseeing intelligence matters in 2007. French deputies had long shown little interest in intelligence matters, considering intelligence to be the prerogative of the executive. 

Before 2007, the only oversight or "control mechanism" that the French Parliament had over the intelligence services was of a financial kind, when they voted the budgets of the Defence, Interior Ministries and the special fund allocations, but the deputies were not consulted on any other matter. Neverthless, even in the absence of oversight by lawmakers in the Parliament and Senate, governmental oversight has in fact always existed. Since the foundation of the 5th Republic, the secret services have been overseen by the Court of Auditors (Cour des comptes). The services - in particular the DGSE - have never been able to hide their operations from government, in particular during a change of government. This administrative oversight capability guaranteed due democratic process despite the lack of a parliamentary oversight committee. It should also be noted that the French secret services have never exceeded their directives and have always shown the utmost loyalty to the executive, whatever party was in power.

The Intelligence Parliamentary Delegation (Délégation parlementaire au renseignement - DPR) is composed of eight lawmakers, 4 deputies from the National Parliament and 4 senators. Government provides it with information on budgets, general activities and the organisation of the intelligence services. It can call on the Ministers of the Interior and Defence, the directors of the intelligence services, as well as any member of the services and any external expert it wishes. Each year, it submits a report to the President of the Republic, to the Prime Minister and to the Presidents of the National Parliament and the Senate on the activities of the French intelligence and security services. 

Notable Experiences

- During World War II, the BCRA and the military intelligence and security services enabled General De Gaulle to fully play his role in the Allied war effort, by providing him with a large quantity of intelligence and by participating along with the Allied powers in clandestine actions in Europe and the Far East. Above all, the BCRA allowed him to organise the resistance in France and to prepare for his taking of power in France.


- During the Cold War, the SDECE quickly ceased operating behind the Iron Curtain in order to focus its efforts on the decolonisation conflicts which involved France (Indochina, Algeria) where it had many successes. Afterwards, it changed into a service in the defence of French interests in Africa, in order to keep the newly independent former colonies within the sphere of influence of the Republic. This objective was fully realised. The SDECE - and afterwards the DGSE - became one of the most capable Western intelligence services on the continent. During the 1970's, in Angola, the French intelligence service provided support to Jonas Savimbi, the leader of UNITA, the guerrilla movement that fought the communist regime in power in the country. It established training camps in Morocco for Angolan freedom fighters, in cooperation with Moroccan instructors. Consequently, France was able to maintain considerable influence in Africa and unwavering allies during UN votes. This allowed France to maintain its status as a world power and to keep its seat as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Moreover, the support provided by the SDECE to French petroleum company Elf allowed France to secure part of its energy supply. In this way, the service played a very effective role in the defence of national interests.

Meanwhile, the SDECE also provided effective assistance to the scientists of the French Atomic Energy Commission (Commissariat à l'énergie atomique - CEA) as they developed French nuclear weapons, and they helped the Armies Chief of Staff to obtain precise coordinates of civilian and military targets in the USSR for France's nuclear strike force. The SDECE also played an important role in the development of France's armament industry with the  « acquisition » of advanced technology abroad. 

In 1979, the SDECE correctly predicted the fall of the Shah of Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (December 1979). During the conflict, its Action service trained combatants loyal to Commandant Massoud in France, provided him with weapons and communications equipment and sent different officers to advise his troops in the Panjshir Valley.


- The DST acquitted itself honourably in the disproportionate struggle against the secret services of the Soviet Bloc. It is true that it never uncovered all the Moscow agents active in France, but it did succeed in significantly disrupting the action of the KGB and its allies. In Moscow in 1981 and 1982, it refused to deal with Vladimir Vetrov, a high-ranking officer at the KGB's technological and scientific intelligence bureau. For more than a year, operating under the code name Farewell, he submitted to his handling officers nearly 3,000 documents of major importance on the extent of Communist espionage in the West. The French counter-intelligence service transmitted its incredible trove of intelligence to its American counterparts who learnt of the development of Soviet technological espionage on American soil.

During the 1950's the DST was involved in the struggle against the Algerian National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale - FLN) and during the 1960's against the Secret Armed Organisation (Organisation armée secrète - OAS), a far-right paramilitary organisation that refused the independence of Algeria. Then, beginning at the end of the 1970's, it very effectively adapted itself to the fight against Arab terrorism. In this fight, the French services had an advance of several decades over their Western counterparts. Since the end of the Cold War, it also succeeded in neutralising several espionage operations led by the US in France, in particular in 1993, an operation that led to the expulsion of five members of the CIA.


- Since 1992, the DRM, thanks to the development of its human and technical intelligence gathering capabilities and resources, has shown its effectiveness in all combat theatres where French forces are deployed. France provided the large part of the European contribution in terms of intelligence during the operation Allied Force in Kosovo in 1999. In 2003, at the time of the American invasion of Iraq, Paris was able to oppose the arguments put forward by the United States, because the DRM was able to provide intelligence to the governmental authorities that contradicted the version built up by Washington to justify its action. Since Operation Serval (2013), the DRM has been heavily involved in the surveillance of the Sahel as part of the fight against the terrorist groups that operate there. 






Though the French intelligence services have means and resources that are largely inferior to both their allies and their adversaries, they are high quality and have proven themselves to be well adapted to the needs of the country since 1945. France has at its disposal esteemed intelligence and action capabilities, even in contrast to states that spend far more in these fields. It remains one of the rare countries in the world capable of monitoring situation dynamics and threatscapes across the globe. 

Thanks to reforms undertaken at the beginning of the 1990's, France today is the only country of the European Union with an almost complete range of technical intelligence resources at its disposal (listening stations, drones, satellites), and therefore a truly independent intelligence capability. This provides the country with total autonomy in its appraisal of international crises, and, when such a position proves necessary, allows it to provide its partners with an alternative approach and insight to that provided by Washington.

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