Paris: There's no French James Bond. But a new push may set the stage for one.
France's secretive international spy agency, the DGSE, is recruiting hundreds of people and getting a budget boost, despite frugal times, to better fend off threats like terrorism and nuclear proliferation. France's answer to the CIA is buffing its image as well, with its first-ever spokesman and a new website.
The move follows hostage-takings abroad, bomb scares at the Eiffel Tower and fallout from WikiLeaks' publication of secret US diplomatic cables. France is also set to ban face-covering veils, which has drawn threats from Al Qaida.
The DGSE changes have been long in coming, part of France's efforts to beef up its network of intelligence operatives as called for in a top-to-bottom security review completed in 2008.
President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative government is sticking to the review's blueprint even as US and British intelligence agencies are facing cutbacks, and despite the economic crisis that has pinched state pockets across Europe.
France's draft 2011 budget would give the DGSE a 13 per cent funding hike — just a year after France hit a record-high 7.7 per cent budget deficit. The agency is adding 500 staff jobs over the next five years, and the prime minister recently inaugurated a new national Intelligence Academy.
It's a big boost for an agency that's little known, despite having agents in hot spots around the world.
"These days, remaining in the shadows means not existing. But we do exist, we do have a purpose," the new spokesman at the DGSE, Nicolas Wuest-Famose, told AP.
The DGSE fits snugly in the Western intelligence universe, often as an ally of the CIA or Britain's MI6. The French agency warned of Al Qaida plane hijackings months before the Sept. 11 attacks and helped free hostages in Iraq and other countries.
DGSE agents along with British and US counterparts exposed Iran's nuclear enrichment facility in Qom. President Barack Obama publicly revealed their discovery last year.
The investment in France's spies boils down to a bet that intelligence-gathering matters as much, if not more, than military might in this era of terrorism.