While a number of intelligence agencies operate in France, large-scale communications interception is carried out primarily by the Directorate General on Exterior Security under the Ministry of Defense, and the metadata collected is shared within the French intelligence network. All of the existing intelligence agencies were originally created by executive action. The adoption of the Law on Intelligence, promulgated in July 2015, establishes a coherent and comprehensive legislative framework to regulate the activities of the intelligence agencies.
The interception of communications is principally governed by the Code of Domestic Security, as amended by recent laws such as the Law on Intelligence and the Law on International Electronic Communications Measures. The legislation recognizes privacy guarantees but also provides for the interception of communications in circumstances where national security and other safety-related concerns are at issue. The Prime Minister may authorize interception when proposed by specified ministers. Such authorizations are time limited. The information collected must be destroyed when no longer needed for a recognized purpose. Intelligence agencies may also obtain certain technical information directly from telephone and Internet service providers. Oversight of interception surveillance is provided by the National Commission for the Control of Intelligence Techniques, but this Commission’s recommendations do not appear to be binding. Parliamentary requests for classified information are routinely rejected and the French Parliament has no inherent right to hear or question members of the intelligence services.
The legislative framework for French intelligence services has changed drastically in the last year. Up until July 2015, France was one of the only Western democracies without a comprehensive and coherent legal framework to govern the activities of its intelligence services. Addressing this issue, the French government adopted the Law on Intelligence on July 24, 2015. The provisions of this Law were incorporated into the existing codes of French law, mainly the Code de la sécurité intérieur (Code of Domestic Security).
France has six intelligence agencies. Three fall under the authority of the Ministry of Defense: the Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure (DGSE, Directorate General on Exterior Security), the Direction du renseignement militaire (DRM, Directorate on Military Intelligence), and the Direction de la protection et de la sécurité de la défense (DPSD, Directorate on Defense Protection and Security). Two agencies fall under the authority of the Ministry of Finance: the Cellule de traitement du renseignement et action contre les circuits financiers clandestins (TRACFIN, Service Against the Laundering of Capital and the Financing of Terrorism) and the Direction nationale du renseignement et des enquêtes douanières (DNRED, National Directorate on Customs Intelligence and Investigations). Finally, the Ministry of the Interior has an intelligence service as well, the Direction centrale du renseignement intérieur (DCRI, Central Directorate on Domestic Intelligence).
It appears that large-scale communications interception is done mainly by the DGSE, which systematically collects all telephone and electronic communications metadata in France, according to news reports. The DGSE appears to share the collected metadata with the other French intelligence agencies.
II. Legislative Framework
The six main intelligence agencies mentioned above were all created by decisions of the executive branch rather than by legislation. The DGSE, DPSD, DRM, DCRI, and TRACFIN were all created by decrees, and the DNRED was created by an arrêté (executive decision). Only in 2011 did the French Parliament provide some legislative basis for the creation of these agencies, by adopting a law stating that “specialized intelligence services . . . are appointed by executive decision of the Prime Minister.”
Prior to the adoption of the Law on Intelligence, French intelligence agencies operated within an ill-defined legal framework. A 2013 parliamentary report had noted that many of France’s intelligence agencies operated in a very blurry “paralegal” or “extralegal” environment, despite some efforts by the legislative branch to provide a better framework. The regulation of French intelligence agencies rested on many decrees, executive decisions, circulars, and instructions that are classified. These regulations (decrees, executive decisions, etc.) do not have the same legal authority as duly enacted legislation.
The Law on Intelligence aims to establish a unified legal framework for the activities of intelligence services. Although the adoption of the Law was probably accelerated by the intensity of the threat of terrorism and, in particular, the January 2015 attacks in France, the government emphasized that it was the result of thorough reflection and not enacted under the pressure of any specific urgent situation.
The Law on Intelligence has two main objectives. First, the Law aims to strengthen the means of action of intelligence agencies by authorizing intelligence services to use newly developed techniques as well as techniques that were previously reserved for the police, such as location tracking, interception of communications, and covert sound recording (“bugging”). Second, the Law aims to guarantee the protection of civil liberties and the right to privacy. By establishing a precise legal framework that authorizes intelligence agencies to use the necessary techniques for intelligence gathering, the Law ensures a balance between the reinforced security of citizens and the protection of their individual freedoms.
The Law on Intelligence authorizes intelligence agencies to exercise their powers exclusively in those cases that the law deems as necessary for reasons of public interest, within the limits prescribed by law, and with respect for the principle of proportionality. Furthermore, the Law defines the missions that the intelligence agencies may pursue and states the exclusive purposes for which the intelligence services may justify the use of their powers. The Law also specifies the conditions under which each intelligence-gathering technique may be used.
III. Interception of Communications
Before the adoption of the Law on Intelligence, the interception of communications was already governed by certain provisions of the Code of Domestic Security. However, the Law on Intelligence substantially broadens the legal framework surrounding the interception of communications and the collection of metadata. Furthermore, another law was adopted in November 2015 to govern the interception of electronic correspondence emitted or received abroad. Like the provisions of the Law on Intelligence, the provisions of this law on interception were also incorporated into the Code of Domestic Security.
The right to privacy, particularly the secrecy of correspondence, is in principle guaranteed by the Code. Privacy may only be violated by the government when it is necessary and in the public interest, as defined by law. Consequently, intelligence agencies may only exercise their powers to
- protect national independence, the integrity of the territory, and provide for the national defense;
- defend major interests in foreign policy and the execution of France’s commitments to Europe and internationally;
- prevent all forms of foreign interference;
- defend the major economic, industrial, and scientific interests of France;
- prevent terrorism;
- prevent attacks on the republican form of institutions;
- prevent actions for the maintenance or reorganization of banned groups, such as armed militias, terrorist organizations, or hate groups;
- prevent collective violence that greatly disrupts public peace;
- prevent crime and organized crime; and
- prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
It appears that the term “electronic communications” includes communications by telephone, fax, and email. The authorization to intercept electronic communications may be given only by written order of the Prime Minister; by direct collaborators entitled to national defense secrets who are specifically chosen by the Prime Minister, upon the written and reasoned proposal of either the Minister of Defense, Minister of the Interior, or Minister in Charge of Customs; or by direct collaborators specifically chosen by these ministers. This authorization is valid for a maximum of four months, but may be renewed by the same procedure under which it was initially granted. Only information relevant to one of the purposes provided by the Code and enumerated above may be transcribed from the intercepted communications, and any recording must be destroyed after thirty days. Transcriptions must be destroyed as soon as they are no longer necessary for the purposes enumerated above. Furthermore, the Prime Minister sets, by decree, the maximum number of communications interceptions that may be simultaneously conducted at any given time. This number was set at 2,700 in 2015.
The Law also extends the possible target of an interception to include people close to the individuals for whom an authorization was given, if there are serious reasons to believe that they can supply information. Intelligence agencies may also obtain directly from telephone and Internet service providers the type of technical information that may be found on a telecommunications bill: the service subscriber’s identity, the location of the subscriber’s terminal equipment, the calls made and/or received, and the date and duration of these communications.
Interception of communications emitted or received outside of France may be authorized for the purpose enumerated in article L811-3 of the Code of Domestic Security. However, intelligence agencies may not use such a measure as a means to monitor individuals, unless such individuals are communicating from outside of France and pose a threat to the fundamental interests of the nation, or unless an authorization for the interception of their communications within France was already in place. The Prime Minister is to designate, in a reasoned decision, the networks of electronic communications for which the interception of electronic correspondence and data emitted or received outside of France may be authorized.
Other means of covertly gathering intelligence, such as placing microphones (“bugs”) in a private location or vehicle, secretly taking pictures or video footage, or capturing computer data, may also be authorized under similar conditions, and following similar procedures, as for the interception of communications. The restrictions imposed by the Code of Domestic Security tend to be somewhat more restrictive for these methods, however. For example, the authorization to place a recording device in a private location is valid for two months instead of four, and the authorization to covertly access data on a computer system is valid only for a period of thirty days.
The main body responsible for the oversight of interception surveillance is the Commission nationale de contrôle des techniques de renseignement (CNCTR), National Commission for the Control of Intelligence Techniques). The CNCTR was instituted by the Law on Intelligence, replacing what used to be the Commission nationale pour les interceptions de securité (CNCIS, National Commission for Security Interceptions). Requests for authorizations to intercept a person’s communications must be sent to the CNCTR, which is to provide its opinion to the Prime Minister. In the case of absolute urgency, and only for reasons concerning national independence, the integrity of the territory and national defense, and the prevention of terrorism or attacks on the republican form of institutions, review by the CNCTR can be omitted, although the CNCTR must still be informed as quickly as possible. The CNCTR’s decisions are not legally binding, but if the Prime Minister authorizes an interception of communications contrary to a CNCTR decision, he/she must provide an explanation as to why the CNCTR’s advice was not followed. Furthermore, if an intelligence-gathering operation involves breaking into a private residence (for example, to place or retrieve a secret recording device), authorization may not be given without first consulting with the CNCTR. If the Prime Minister decides to authorize the operation after a negative opinion on the part of the CNCTR, the latter may immediately appeal to the Conseil d’Etat (Council of State, the highest administrative court).
The CNCTR is composed of nine members, including two senators and two members of the National Assembly. Beyond these four seats on the CNCTR, parliamentary oversight over intelligence activities appears to be quite weak. Indeed, requests for classified documents from parliamentary committees tend to be rejected, and members of the French Parliament have no general right to hear or question members of the intelligence services.
Prepared by Nicolas Boring
Foreign Law Specialist
 Press Release, Premier Ministre [Office of the Prime Minister], Projet de loi renseignement, “Protéger les Français dans le respect des libertés” [Intelligence Bill, “Protecting the French People and Respecting Freedoms”] at 7 (Mar. 19, 2015), http://www.gouvernement.fr/partage/3691-projet-de-loi-renseignement-proteger-les-francais-dans-le-respect-des-libertes, archived at https://perma.cc/B4PC-7TY6.
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 Commission des lois constitutionnelles, de la législation et de l’administration générale de la République [Commission on Constitutional Laws, Legislation, and General Administration of the Republic], Assemblée nationale [National Assembly], Rapport d’Information [Information Report], No. 1022, at 10–11 (May 14, 2013).
 Jacques Follorou & Franck Johannes, Révélations sur le Big Brother français [Revelations on the French Big Brother], Le Monde (July 4, 2013), http://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2013/07/04/revelations-sur-le-big-brother-francais_3441973_3224.html, archived at https://perma.cc/YJ7J-XGLU.
 Commission des lois constitutionnelles, de la législation et de l’administration générale de la République, supra note 3, at 15–16.
 Loi No. 2011-267 du 14 mars 2011 d’orientation et de programmation pour la performance de la sécurité intérieure [Law No. 2011-267 of March 14, 2011, of Orientation and Programming for the Performance of Domestic Security] art. 27, http://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/affichTexte.do?cidTexte=JORFTEXT000023707312& categorieLien=id, archived at https://perma.cc/Q3TX-PAX9 . This provision was incorporated into the French Code de la défense (Defense Code) as article L2371-1, http://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/affichCode.do;jsessionid=6D0EC48E601 3B6B33D2E5AD1A7AC622E.tpdjo10v_3?idSectionTA=LEGISCTA000023710864&cidTexte=LEGITEXT000006071307&dateTexte=20141204, archived at https://perma.cc/CN49-HXEQ.
 Commission des lois constitutionnelles, de la législation et de l’administration générale de la République, supra note 3, at 13.
 Id. at 17.
 Jean-Jacques Urvoas, Rapport fait au nom de la commission des lois constitutionnelles, de la législation et de l’administration générale de la République après engagement de la procédure accélérée, sur le projet de loi (no. 2669) relatif au renseignement [Report Prepared on Behalf of the Commission on Constitutional Laws, on Legislation and on the General Administration of the Republic, After Activation of the Accelerated Procedure, on Bill (No. 2669) Regarding Intelligence], Assemblée nationale 14 (Apr. 2, 2015), http://www.assemblee-nationale.fr/14/rapports/r2697.asp#P31784757, archived at https://perma.cc/B4VF-YN3L.
Press Release, supra note 1,at 8.
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 Id.; La lutte contre le terrorisme [The Fight Against Terrorism], Gouvernement.fr (May 23, 2016), http://www.gouvernement.fr/action/la-lutte-contre-le-terrorisme, archived at https://perma.cc/K63Z-S2SX.
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 Urvoas, supra note 10, at 14; Loi No. 2015-912 du 24 juillet 2015 relative au renseignement art. 2; Code de la sécurité intérieure arts. L811-1 to L811-3, https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/affichCode.do?idSectionTA=LEGIS CTA000030935034&cidTexte=LEGITEXT000025503132&dateTexte=20160610, archived at https://perma.cc/4LRT-2NFK.
 Urvoas, supra note 10, at 14; Loi No. 2015-912 du 24 juillet 2015 relative au renseignement arts. 1–3; Code de la sécurité intérieure arts. L811-3, & L821-1 to L821-8, https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/affichCode.do?id SectionTA=LEGISCTA000030935046&cidTexte=LEGITEXT000025503132&dateTexte=20160610, archived at https://perma.cc/F9F9-MT6M.
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 Code de la sécurité intérieure art. L801-1.
 Id. art. L811-3.
 Commission des lois constitutionnelles, de la législation et de l’administration générale de la République, supra note 3, at 18–22.
 Code de la sécurité intérieure art. L821-2, https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/affichCode.do?idSectionTA= LEGISCTA000030935046&cidTexte=LEGITEXT000025503132&dateTexte=20160610, archived at https://perma.cc/DTH8-39UG.
 Id. art. L821-4.
 Id. arts. L822-2 & L822-3, https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/affichCode.do?idSectionTA=LEGISCTA 000030935064&cidTexte=LEGITEXT000025503132&dateTexte=20160610, archived at https://perma.cc/E5XC-XHHU.
 Id. art. L822-3.
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 Loi No. 2015-912 du 24 juillet 2015 relative au renseignement art. 21.
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 Id. art. L821-5.
 Id. art. L821-4.
 Id. art. L853-3.
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Last Updated: 12/30/2020