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by John Helmer, Moscow 

The message delivered last week to French President Emmanuel Macron was a dramatic one: Never mind Israel throttling the Palestinians, Macron was told, the Houthis and their Arab and Iranian allies are capable of throttling France.  

Macron shot the messenger.

Bernard Émié  was fired last Wednesday, December 20, and Nicolas Lerner put in his place. The announcement — the first time there’s been such a switch between the traditionally competing foreign and domestic  intelligence chiefs — was made in a tweet by the French Defense Minister Sébastien Lecornu. Émié has been the head of France’s foreign intelligence agency, the DGSE (Directorate-General for External Security), since 2017. His replacement is Nicolas Lerner, head of France’s internal security agency, the DGSI (Directorate-General for Internal Security), since 2018.  

By coincidence on the very same day of Émié’s sacking, Lecornu took a telephone call from Washington.

US Secretary of Defense General Lloyd Austin told Lecornu “the Red Sea is vital for global commerce, noting that the scale and increasing frequency of these attacks constitute a significant international problem that must be addressed.  The United States and France are both making significant contributions to stability in the region and seek further collaboration on bilateral and multilateral solutions. Secretary Austin thanked France for its support to the 44-nation joint statement condemning the Houthis’ illegal attacks on international shipping.”  

This is the Pentagon “readout”. The meaning is the opposite.

France is pulling its naval forces in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden out of Austin’s military operation and of targeting by the US and Israel of Houthi units on the Yemen shore, as well as of the Iranian  intelligence vessels, MV Behshad at anchor in the Red Sea,    and the MV Saviz in the eastern Indian Ocean (Arabian Sea).  

In fact, the elimination of Émié, according to French intelligence sources, signals that US backing for Israel’s genocidal operation against the Gaza Palestinians, and the expansion of the war by the Houthis of Yemen and Hezbollah of Lebanon, are driving French national interest calculations in the opposite direction from the Americans and Israelis. Émié is a former French ambassador to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Algeria, and the French Foreign Ministry’s chief policymaker for the Arab world for several years before he was appointed to run the DGSE in 2017.  

Lerner, by contrast, has no direct Arab experience.   A university classmate of President Macron’s, his career has been limited to police operations in the south of France, Corsica, and Paris, and then in the private office of the Interior Minister as Macron chopped the ministry’s head three times in eighteen months.   

The French press are struggling to explain what has happened to the heads of their intelligence services. According to the state press agency AFP and Le Monde, “Emié launched reforms within the DGSE and saw the agency’s budget increase. He is said to have improved relations with the domestic security agency. But many have criticised the DGSE under him for failing to foresee the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine and a string of military coups in former French colonies Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.”   A rightwing, bank-owned regional newspaper, L’Est Républicain, claims:  “Bernard Emié and his successor Nicolas Lerner contributed to improving the often tense relations between the DGSE and the DGSI, the replacement of the former by the latter confirming links described in the intelligence community as very regular and professional.”  

Defense Minister Lecornu has been struggling with Macron’s pro-US, pro-Israel, anti-Russian line as the war in Gaza has been escalating. Towards Israel, Lecornu said the week after the Hamas operation began in October, “the bulk of the support we’re providing today is intelligence. The intelligence provided is provided as part of the regular partnership between our two countries. Unfortunately, we have a long history in the fight against terrorism, and our intelligence services have particularly powerful resources and sensors…Iran poses undeniable security challenges, both in its support for Russia in the war in Ukraine and on the issue of nuclear proliferation. Today, the priority is to avoid escalation. Israel has the right to defend itself and its people from these atrocities. However, this response must be proportionate and consistent with the laws of war. We emphasize that no other actor hostile to Israel should seek to take advantage of the situation…There is a very difficult situation in the Gaza Strip. France has nothing to be ashamed of, it has always been one of the most reliable countries in terms of aid and support.”  

Since October, French intelligence sources have been trying to pacify the deeply distrustful Hezbollah; devise a seaborne aid plan for Gaza over Israeli objections; and protect French shipping lines and export-import interests now suffering from the Houthi cutoff of the Suez Canal and the Red Sea.  If the sea war escalates to the Gibraltar Strait, the risk to France is that Marseille would be cut off from its Arab and African oil sources simultaneously; the port of Marseille accounts for more than a third of France’s crude oil import supply and petroleum refinery capacity.  

And not just oil.  Most of France’s container imports originate from China, South Korea, Japan, India and the United Arab Emirates,  which unload in Marseille from vessels moving across the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, and the Suez Canal.

An oil cutoff from all directions during 2024, accompanied by a container blockade in the east,  would be a fresh disaster for the rightwing succession assembling to replace Macron in the 2027 presidential election.  

The potency of the American and Israeli lobbies in France is failing to suppress the mass  protests of the Muslim Arab communities, as well as of French Catholics whose co-religionists have been murdered by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) in Gaza and the West Bank. The separate rise of opposition to the US-Israeli war by French industrialists and port unions is unexpected — and more difficult for Macron to repress as he has attempted with the security forces directed by Lerner at the DGSI.

Follow the French economic exposure to the Arab strategy for fighting the US and Israel in this report  of mid-2022 by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and this map. The IEA, an anti-Russian agency dominated by the US, does not mention Israel or Middle Eastern war in the report. :


Click on source for enlarged view.  

US military,  UK maritime,   and the commercial maritime press  are reporting there were several Houthi drone and missile operations in the Red Sea during December 26.

The Mediterranean Shipping Company’s container ship MSC United VIII was attacked after leaving King Abdullah Port in Saudi Arabia, heading for Pakistan;  a Houthi spokesman did not identify the Israeli link to the vessel, its Italian owner,  or its cargo, but said it was hit after it refused to respond to three warnings. The Israel connection is believed by maritime sources to be an operating camouflage arrangement between MSC and the Israeli ZIM shipping company, owned by Eyal and Idan Ofer.  

Left, the MSC United VIII; right, its position when attacked in the southern Red Sea on December 26.  

The Russian reaction to Macron’s intelligence purge has been uncomprehending in the mainstream media; it has been tempered in the specialist military and security media by Kremlin restrictions on disclosure and debate of how much support the Kremlin and the General Staff should be providing to the Arab militaries — Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis – and to Iran.

Unusually for Vzglyad, the Moscow security publication which has been following a strict pro-Israel line since the start of the Gaza war, a report appeared on Monday by Yevgeny Krutikov exposing the vulnerabilities of the French intelligence services in Africa, Lebanon, and Russia. In the past Krutikov has served in the Russian military intelligence agency GRU; his family has a long and distinguished record of Soviet foreign ministry service. Krutikov is also publishing an independent Telegram account, Mudraya Ptitsa (“Wise Bird”);   this is less inhibited in its support for the Arab militaries and their combat against Israel, as are most of  Russia’s battlefield correspondents, the military bloggers, and their Russian Army sources.

Krutikov’s report focuses principally on what his Russian sources know of French operations in Africa. It goes on, however, to pinpoint the role the Russians believe that Émié has played in Lebanon, especially with Hezbollah. The Russian text has been translated verbatim; illustrations and references have been added.  

December 26, 2023
How French Intelligence lost to Russia in Africa
 By Yevgeny Krutikov

French President Emmanuel Macron has dismissed the head of the Directorate General of External Security (DGSE), that is, foreign intelligence, Bernard Émié. French intelligence has made several major failures at once, and this is especially true in Africa. Including those countries from which France was forced to leave, whereas Russia, by contrast, is expanding its presence.

Bernard Émié has been the head of French intelligence since 2017. His predecessor, Jean-Pierre Palasse, lasted seven months as CEO and was fired by Macron with a devastating characterization (“complete unprofessionalism”). Macron was outraged that Palasse was unable to establish work in Russia and Ukraine, as a result of which the French president was “insufficiently informed”, including during the so-called Normandy Format process.  French intelligence simply did not have any agents in Moscow, nor the ability to analyze information.

For Émié, the Last Post sounded a few days ago, when four DGSE employees were detained in Burkina Faso at once. Paris denies the involvement of the detainees in intelligence (“these are technical specialists”), but the simultaneous departure of two dozen French citizens from Burkina Faso, which followed this detention, caught the eye. Such a mass exodus clearly indicates the destruction of a spy network and is usually called an “evacuation”. The French also completely abandoned neighbouring Niger.

But the clouds have been gathering over Émié since about the summer of this year. Articles began to appear in the press about his possible resignation in connection with a series of coups d’etat in Africa and the reorientation of the Francophone countries of the continent towards Russia. The intermediate result of this trend has been the actual scrapping of the “French world” system in Africa, up to the abandonment of the use of the French language in a number of countries.

A 2023 documentary in English explaining how France has ruled, and continues to rule its former African colonies.

This is a major geopolitical disaster for Paris. The post-colonial system in Africa was an important component of French statehood. Awareness of what is happening in Paris has not yet fully arrived, but the head of intelligence became the first victim of the process of rethinking the role of Paris in the world. Émié, like his predecessor, “insufficiently informed” Macron.

This is probably true, but the intelligence chief is not the root cause of France’s withdrawal from the Sahel. Although, of course, despite the serious resources and positions of DGSE in Africa, French intelligence frankly missed not so much the arrival of Russia on the continent, but the deep processes taking place in the countries of the region. First of all, the explosive growth of anti-French sentiment, provoked both by the general post-colonial policy and the failure of French attempts to cope with Islamists in the Sahel and several separatist movements.

Russian assistance has proved to be very effective on the ground. In particular, the recent liberation of Kidal in Mali, which was considered the capital of the Tuareg separatists, is a clear example of this. The French, in principle, were unable to cope with the separatists, and the governments of several Sahel countries suspected that Paris was playing a double game with both Islamists and Tuaregs behind their backs with the involvement of DGSE.

In addition, DGSE appears to have been asleep during the activation of the United States in Africa, which has been directly targeted against the interests of France.

Roughly speaking, Washington took advantage of the weakening of Paris’s position on the continent and began to squeeze historically founded economic preferences away from the French. In particular, the oil company Total suffered serious losses. And the possible loss of uranium mines in Mali generally calls into question the entire energy system of France.

Another unfortunate story related to Bernard Émié is the behind–the-scenes negotiations in Lebanon. The head of French intelligence personally arrived in Beirut, where he tried directly to manage the Lebanese government and organize negotiations with Hezbollah. The fact is that Émié was previously ambassador to Jordan and Lebanon, although his initial diplomatic specialization was limited to the countries of the African Sahel. But he believed that his experience and authority were enough to solve something in Lebanon. The negotiations in Beirut eventually failed, and the local press printed outrageous articles that the head of French intelligence was manipulating the Lebanese government.

Émié is a career diplomat. This is a feature of France: the head of [foreign] intelligence is usually appointed from diplomatic circles. It is believed that the chief executive’s position is more political than professional. An office in a gloomy building on Boulevard Mortier near the Père Lachaise Cemetery is a mediocre position for career growth.

The DGSE headquarters at Boulevard Mortier in Paris.

Émié, however, took his role seriously. He tried to reform DGSE, got Macron to increase the intelligence budget. But Macron, apparently, has too high ambitions: he is trying to play in several directions at once. First of all in Ukraine, and then in Africa.

The Ukrainian direction was a consistent failure by three intelligence chiefs, although the French president was counting on them and this process for playing the role he aimed at. Having failed, however, to achieve anything in the Ukrainian direction, Paris went into the shadows, but this was a big blow to Macron’s ego. And then what happened in Africa happened, and the collapse of the influence of Paris abroad took the form of an avalanche.

Macron has now made an unconventional decision. Nicolas Lerner (right), who previously worked as head of French counterintelligence (DGSI), has been appointed to the position of Director General of DGSE. A funny detail: the headquarters of the French counterintelligence is located on Stalingrad Boulevard in a building called Malakoff, in remembrance of the French storming of the Malakhov Redoubt in June 1855, during the Crimean War. The French victory in that battle led to the fall of Sevastopol.  

Lerner’s appointment is a very controversial move, since the counterintelligence officer’s thinking is radically different from the intelligence officer’s style of thought. Roughly speaking, these are not only different professions, but also separate worlds. And Lerner was also a gendarme in the recent past. He worked both in the Paris police and in the provinces [Languedoc-Roussillon], but most importantly, he was the chief of police in Corsica. He somehow managed to come to an agreement with local separatists, which provided a positive effect from Macron’s trip to the island during which the president even promised to increase Corsica’s rights up to autonomy. But the main advantage of Lerner is something else. He is a childhood friend of Macron. They studied together at an elite Parisian school, in parallel classes. Lerner is part of the president’s inner circle. Macron has bet on a man he fully trusts.

Most likely, Lerner has been relegated to the task of returning to those parts of the world and those areas from which France has evacuated over the past five years. And by and large, Macron’s ambitions to “make France great again” are commendable. Any desire by a European state to get rid of American pressure and move towards the sovereignization of its policy is worthy of respect and generally in line with Russia’s interests.

But Lerner has come to the DGSE in a very bad starting position. There is a structure; it functions; but like many other Western intelligence agencies, it is constrained by ideological dogmas such as “Atlantic solidarity”. For intelligence work, there is a dead-end here: either you defend the national interests of France, or “Atlantic solidarity” in which French interests are not visible.

In addition, the new head of French intelligence must now be on the defensive. The agent network in the Sahel has been destroyed. Those Arab countries which have traditionally been in the French orbit of influence (Syria, Lebanon, Algeria) look at Macron’s attempts to inflate himself with some bewilderment. For example, Algeria openly supports the same Tuareg separatists against whom France seems to have signed up to fight. Over the past ten years, the DGSE has never been able to correctly analyze the situation in any particular country, and that  has led to unpleasant incidents. For example, Macron’s trip to Rwanda was a complete failure, although it was planned as a triumphant return.

Source: https://www.bbc.com/

In any case, the fate of Nicolas Lerner will be difficult. The appointment of a close childhood friend to the position of DGSE director is a landmark decision. DGSE as a structure will have an additional hardware resource, but this will not mean an instant improvement in positions even where they have been lost over the last couple of years. And returning to the Russian track is possible only with the invention of some new approaches. And this is not visible in Paris yet. 

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