At the United Nations General Assembly yesterday, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff condemned the surveillance of electronic communications around the globe by the U.S. National Security Agency as a breach of individual rights and national sovereignty. Her comments echo the heated reaction in Germany, where the spying program was an issue in this month’s elections; in the U.K., where the Guardian newspaper broke many of the major stories; and at the European Parliament, which has held a series of hearings on the matter.

One nation, however, has been conspicuous for its almost total silence: France.

The uproar in Paris has been limited to an off-the-cuff remark by President Francois Hollande in July about how spying on partners and allies was “unacceptable.” In late August, the prime minister’s office quietly circulated a memo reminding top officials that they shouldn’t use personal smartphones for official business.

This muted reaction can be chalked up to a mixture of embarrassment, experience and perhaps even a touch of envy.

The French are expressing little surprise or outrage because their government is no slouch at official surveillance, legal or otherwise. There’s a long tradition of Gallic snooping, starting with the word espionage itself, which comes from the medieval French “espier.” Louis XIV famously created a ruthlessly efficient secret police force, and the terror methods developed by some French revolutionaries in the late 18th century were later deliberately copied by the Soviet Cheka, the forerunner of the KGB.

Actress’s Phone

More recently, during President Francois Mitterrand’s first term in the 1980s, the phones of dozens of private citizens, including some well-known journalists and, inexplicably, the actress Carole Bouquet, were tapped; seven officials in Mitterrand’s administration were tried and convicted for the intrusions.

Intelligence officials everywhere are tight-lipped about their activities, but France’s top spooks have dropped occasional clues, especially during and after a revamp of the intelligence agencies’ organization in 2008. The picture that emerges is of a security apparatus equipped with advanced cybersurveillance tools, but which nonetheless sees itself as playing catch-up with the U.S. and the U.K.

A reckoning arrived five years ago with the publication of a “white paper,” a government strategy document on defense and intelligence, which highlighted a gap in France’s technological ability to carry out comprehensive surveillance. While the U.S. and some other countries had invested heavily in advanced signal intelligence, France’s “services have not benefited on the same scale,” the report said. What was needed was “a qualitative and quantitative leap” that would allow French agencies to maintain a high standard and “be able to dialogue with the few countries who are our principal intelligence partners.”

Early this year, Erard Courbin de Mangoux, the director of the main external intelligence agency, the Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure, reported to a parliamentary commission that France had caught up.

“We have been able to develop an important capacity to intercept Internet traffic,” Courbin de Mangoux said. “We are also working heavily on imaging.”

In July, shortly after the disclosures about U.S. spying by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the daily Le Monde published a front-page article under the headline: “Revelations about the French Big Brother.” The newspaper alleged that the DGSE systematically spied on e-mails, text messages, phone calls and social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. These communications were subsequently stored for years, outside any political control or oversight, in computers in the basement of the agency’s building in Paris.

Specific Permission

The government dismissed Le Monde’s suggestions of overreach, pointing to a 1991 law that allows surveillance of individuals suspected of terrorism or other specific illegal activities, but only after an independent security committee has signed off. More revealing was the reaction of Jean-Jacques Urvoas, a Socialist Party lawmaker and vice president of the Parliamentary Intelligence Committee, who said it wasn’t true that French citizens were subject to a huge and permanent surveillance program that is beyond political control. He drew a curious distinction between French and U.S. spying. The NSA “is like a trawler,” he said, while France’s DGSE “fishes with a harpoon.”

Whatever the truth, French intelligence operates with some evident disadvantages. France is not part of the Echelon network, which links the NSA to intelligence agencies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the U.K. Its intelligence operations are smaller and less well-funded than in the U.K., and are minuscule compared with the NSA. Courbin de Mangoux, the DGSE director, put his agency’s staffing at about 5,000 and its budget this year at 655 million euros ($870 million). Britain’s Government Communication Headquarters has about 1,000 more staff members and twice the budget; the NSA has more than 100,000 employees and contractors and the U.S. intelligence budget exceeds $50 billion, according to documents leaked by Snowden to the Washington Post.

France also doesn’t have the privileged access to Google Inc., Facebook Inc., Yahoo! Inc. and other U.S. Internet companies that, according to Snowden, the NSA has. The DGSE has acknowledged that it can access a range of communications meta data, such as listings of telephone numbers dialed. But as Urvoas has pointed out, that’s not the same as being able to systematically listen in to conversations. (The NSA says it doesn’t listen in to Americans’ conversations; that’s little consolation to Brazilians and others.)

More Oversight

As for the delicate question of oversight, after years of putting up with fast and loose practices, there are growing signs that France is trying to rein in its security services. The Parliamentary Intelligence Commission was set up in 2007, and publishes an annual report. Its president, Patricia Adam, insists that she “cannot allow it to be said that the activity of the intelligence services escapes parliamentary control.”

And there are signs of a crackdown on abuses. A trial is scheduled in February for Bernard Squarcini, the former director of internal intelligence, who is alleged to have requisitioned telephone records of a Le Monde correspondent, in breach of the 1991 law on data interceptions. Squarcini acknowledges he received the records but says he was acting within the law.

With such high profile cases making headlines, it’s perhaps little surprise that France is just “shocked, shocked” by Snowden and the NSA revelations that have so upset its neighbors.

(Peter Gumbel, a Paris-based journalist, is the author, most recently, of “France’s Got Talent: The Woeful Consequences of French Elitism.”)

To contact the writer of this article: Peter Gumbel at Petergumbel@orange.fr.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.