Reasons of State

R.W. Johnson

  • The ‘Rainbow Warrior’ Affair by Richard Shears and Isobelle Gidley
    Allen and Unwin, 215 pp, £2.95, January 1986, ISBN 0 04 900041 1
  • Sink the ‘Rainbow’: An Inquiry into the Greenpeace Affair by John Dyson
    Gollancz, 192 pp, £8.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 575 03856 X
  • La Piscine: Les Services Secrets Français 1944-1984 by R. Faligot and P. Krop
    Seuil, 431 pp, March 1985, ISBN 2 02 008743 X

A hoodlum’s job done by honest men. With us, you only kill for reasons of state.’ This is the opinion of Maurice Robert, research director of the French secret service (and later Ambassador to Gabon), as recorded by Faligot and Krop in their excellent and well-researched book. It is difficult to accept such a verdict on the DGSE (originally the BCRA, then the DGER, then the SDECE). A more accurate summing-up would be that the service has proved both ruthless and frequently incompetent, that it has known its fine romantic hours and impressive coups, but that it has depended on a low-grade and poorly educated cadre prone to tough-guy tactics, and that many of its problems derive from the political purges to which it has been subject, and the chronic distrust it arouses in all its political masters. None of the purges and shake-ups has ever been quite complete: they have always left a cave within the organisation owing loyalty to the ancien régime and not above sabotaging their new political masters in the hope that this will help bring the old lot back. Politicians, knowing this, act accordingly: in the Greenpeace affair, the Elysée first heard of the disaster in New Zealand, not from the DGSE, which comes under the Defence Ministry, but from the Interior Ministry, whose internal secret police, the DST, routinely tap the phones of the DGSE. Similarly, the Government was furious to discover that in the frogman training school whose agents sank the Rainbow Warrior, a portrait of Giscard still hung where the obligatory portrait of Mitterrand should have been. The training school has since been closed down.

Mitterrand himself was involved with the secret service as early as 1944. The BCRA (as it then was) represented a simple outgrowth of the wartime Gaullist network, and Mitterrand, then in London, worked closely with Jacques Foccart – later De Gaulle’s spy chief and bête noire of the Left – on the romantic but generally disastrous mission to parachute agents into occupied Europe ahead of the Allied armies in order to liberate French deportees from the camps. So many agents were killed to no effect that the project was suspended – though not before one agent had made a quite wonderful haul at Niederdorf: among the detainees he found the former (and future) Socialist premier Léon Blum and his wife, the former Austrian Chancellor, Schuschnigg, a son of the Hungarian dictator Admiral Horthy, Mgr Piguet, Bishop of Clermont-Ferrand, Prince Xavier of Bourbon-Parma and Prince Frederick of Prussia, the entire Greek General Staff, a nephew of Molotov and a cousin of Churchill. This strange ensemble dined together in the camp that night (with champagne). Blum, though fresh out of Buchenwald, wanted, above all, to know about the latest French election results.

For a while the BCRA was mainly preoccupied with wartime sequels. Under the urgings of the Communist Minister of Industry, Ferdinand Porsche was grabbed and set to work at Renault (when the Communists left the Government Porsche was sent back to jail). A director of the Junkers aircraft firm was grabbed from Vienna, where he was staying with an Austrian actress and her little daughter, the future sex symbol Romy Schneider. He was set to work at Dassault and ultimately helped to devise the Mirage. The BCRA also found Klaus Barbie and interrogated him: finding he was already an American agent, they had to let him go. But the man the BCRA really wanted to get was Franco: plans were laid to destabilise his regime and assassinate him – until the British vetoed the idea.

In these early years, the British SIS and the American OSS effectively laid down the parameters within which the French were allowed to operate. Thanks to them, French agents got pulled into the crazy and murderous scheme to place anti-Communist guerrillas in Albania, the Ukraine and Russia. Worse, the French had to be passive partners while a similar operation was mounted by the British and Americans on French soil in 1946-47. Against all the evidence, the two Allied services had somehow convinced themselves that the Communists were plotting revolution in France: so an embryonic guerrilla movement was set afoot, with arms caches scattered throughout France (especially in Brittany, where the SAS and the British controller, Earl Jellicoe, appear to have been particularly active). Money was gathered from the Catholic Church, and ‘safe’ conservative elements recruited – which, of course, frequently meant Vichyites and extreme right-wingers. To their horror and naive surprise, the Allies then discovered that these elements were planning a Vichyite coup – the Blue Plan – which was to commence with the assassination of De Gaulle, the blame thrown onto the Communists, and the Right riding back to power on the inevitable wave of indignation, using the arms caches so helpfully supplied. The French secret service, born of the Resistance, had had to sit by as foreign secret services came close to restoring Vichy. By 1949, under similar pressures, the French were rounding up hundreds of refugee Spanish Republicans as suspected Soviet agents.

By this time the Socialists (SFIO) had taken over the SDECE (as it now was), sweeping most of the Gaullists away and installing loyal SFIO men at every level. One such was the remarkable Léon Kastenbaum, former secretary to the revolutionary socialist leader, Jules Guesde, and later director of the Tour de France. Kastenbaum maintained close relations with all the parties of the Socialist International and not a little ‘dirty money’ got passed on to sometimes quite unlikely clients – the early career of Salvador Allende appears to have been a major beneficiary.

Even by the late Forties, however, the focus of SDECE attention had shifted to the colonies. It was here, especially in Indochina, Black Africa, the Middle East and North Africa, that the SDECE found its true focus and built up formidable networks. Nonetheless, there were a fair number of Clouseau-like disasters. In 1949 it was learnt with horror that the Communist Vietminh radio was broadcasting verbatim the secret report of the French chief of staff on the Indochina situation within weeks of its being written. The trail of leaks traced proved so embarrassing to both the military and the government that the only solution seemed to be to declassify the report, thereby obviating the necessity of bringing anyone to trial (though the chief of staff was quietly sacked).

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