France’s External Intelligence Agency: The DGSE


    1.0 The DGSE: A Lonely Crowd

    The DGSE, formally known as La Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure and to others ‘La Piscine’ (The Pool) is the nation’s secret front line of defence. Every year, the DGSE produces over several thousand pieces of intelligence to the French state in protection of her national interests. (Source)

    For context, the DGSE serves a similar role in function to that of the US’s CIA and Britain’s SIS. However, it is perhaps the lesser known agency within the realm of Anglo dominated intelligence literature and media attention. In reality, France and their external intelligence services outreach dominates on a global scale, influencing states and thwarting those who wish harm to La Francophonie.

    1.1 A Unique Service

    If one were to look deep into the history of the DGSE, you would find an agency shrouded in controversy. Renseignement (intelligence) is a concept favoured by the media in France for its association with scandal and political sensitivity. In 2022, former DGSE director Bernard Bajolet was indicted over extortion charges on individuals by the DGSE. An affair French media outlet Le Monde divulged into at no expense. Regarding operations, the memory of the 1982 sinking of the Rainbow Warrior still weighs the burden of clandestine activity gone wrong. More recently however, the invasion of Ukraine led to France’s military intelligence chief (DRM) to resign, failing to predict the invasion unlike other western intelligence agencies. (Source) (Source)

    However, you would too find an agency unlike any other, specifically engineered to the modern needs of the French state. It is expansive, diverse, and at the centre of influencing government decision making. French intelligence and the DGSE have a soured history. However, one worthy of discussion which will be explored in this article.

    2.0 DGSE Symbolism and Motto

    2.1 Motto

    The motto of the DGSE is ‘Partout où nécessité fait loi’ (Wherever, necessity is law). The underlying message being that the ends ultimately justify the means. A nod to the services’ highly clandestine nature, using whatever means to reach their objectives. 

    2.2 Emblem

    DGSE emblem displaying a globe with what is meant to be France in the center and DGSE spelled out across the emblem.
    DGSE Emblem. Wikicommons

    A lot is happening within the DGSE’s logo and is filled with hidden symbolism. At the centre, is France highlighted in red, interconnected with networks of agents and systems represented by the white lines. Holding up France is what appears to be an eagle in the shape of a stand. Always vigilant, the eagle represents the DGSE’s operational capacity, reach, and efficiency. (Source)

    3.0 The Deuxième Bureau

    Founded in the confines of the Third Republic, the DGSE can trace its lineage to 1870. Unravelling itself from their humiliating defeat in the Franco Prussian war, France found itself at an existential crisis. Far apart from the glory days of Napoleon, the French military and aristocracy realised the need for far more efficient planning and knowledge of their enemies. That following year, La Deuxième Bureau de l’État-major général was founded by the French ministry of war to prevent such an incident from reoccurring. Focused on research, or as we would call intelligence, the bureau revitalised the military into a modern force capable of efficient planning and direction.

    3.1 Alfred Dreyfus

    Until 1894, the bureau served its purpose well, establishing itself as an early predecessor to intelligence in France. However, that same year would change public perception of intelligence in France forever. Alfred Dreyfus, a French military officer, stood accused of betraying his country. His crime: selling state secrets to the German high command. Found guilty, Dreyfus endured 12 years before he was exonerated by a military commission over his innocence. Throughout this period of time, the impact in which the affair drew highlighted the flaws within French society, namely, the upper political class’s association with the military and intelligence service. Although the incident was motivated more on grounds of antisemitism, nonetheless this is where the mistrust between intelligence, the public, and government began. (Source) (Source)

    3.2 A Modern Intelligence Service

    Following a short disbandment given the political fallout of the Dreyfus Affair, the bureau was reinstated in 1907. Instructed to counter espionage, the bureau and the military were given further oversight in conjunction with the judiciary system to perform their activities. By 1915, the bureau was formed out of smaller sub agencies to increase the bureau’s capacity as an external intelligence agency. Including, Section de Centralisation du Renseignement (SRD) and the Bureaux Centraux de Renseignement (BCR). 

    By the time the First World War began, the Deuxième Bureau was a capable and modern intelligence service. As such, French intelligence played a decisive role in numerous operations by the Germans. A notable example of this was Operation Hagen. Desperate, a final offensive at the end of the war seemed the most appropriate to break the stagnation on the western front by German high command. However, the plan was flawed not by the ability of the commanders to organise themselves, but instead the Deuxième Bureau’s years of intelligence collection work in reconnaissance along with an in-depth knowledge division strategy and tactics employed by the Germans through French agents.

    The DGSE offices. Source: official YouTube channel.

    3.3 The Birth of Clandestine Activity

    The Second World War presented new challenges for French intelligence and society. Capitulating in 1940, Europe’s largest military and empire collapsed, with it, the Deuxième Bureau too. However, intelligence for France shifted, it began to become more clandestine as the goal of liberation replaced that of state survival. In London, De Gaulle established the Bureau Central de Renseignements et D’Action (BCRA) in 1942 under Andre Dewavrin. Throughout the war, BCRA worked alongside Free French forces and coordinated with French resistance members alongside Britain’s intelligence network, including the SOE. Today, the DGSE can trace their lineage from clandestine activity and their values to the work done by the BCRA. (Source)

    3.3 The Cold War and Subsequent Growth  

    Towards the end of the Second World War, French intelligence was rebirthed into protecting the French Fourth Republic. As such, the BCRA alongside other smaller intelligence and clandestine groups merged into a short-lived agency called the DGSS. However, by 1945 France was faced to pick up the pieces of its crumbling empire and shattered society. Again, intelligence was reorganised one last time into the Service de documentation extérieure et de contre-espionnage (SDECE). 

    Throughout the Cold War, the SDECE favoured using the knowledge gained through their wartime clandestine activity. As the empire collapsed around them, SDECE found itself involved across the world globally from Indochina to Algeria. By 1970, SDECE had a poor reputation. Alexandre de Marenches was appointed director that year and reorganised the service into an actionable agency. He compared it to more like a gang of criminals than a collection of professionals. In 1981, France elected a socialist government who identified Marenches as being too political. Thus, he was subsequently removed and the agency was renamed to the DGSE.

    4.0 Organisation

    Motto: ‘Partout où nécessité fait loi’

    Headquarters: 141 Boulevard Mortier, 20th Arrondissement, Paris. 

    Known as ‘La Piscine’ or ‘The Swimming Pool’ to some due to its proximity to the French Swimming Federations building. But to others, it is the DGSE headquarters, the ‘Centre Administratif des Tourelles’. A building in which France’s intelligence officers and analysts work around the clock in protection of the country. Fundamentally, the DGSE follows four key missions:

    • Counter Terrorism 
    • Counter Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons
    • Cyber Defence
    • Action against foreign interferences

    In 2022, the DGSE underwent a major organisational restructuring, changing the dynamic of the agency. Formed as recently as 13 July 2022, the position of deputy director is a fairly new concept to the DGSE. The deputy director will oversee the organisational structure of the agency, ranging from mission prerogative to the wellbeing of staff and resources. In addition to this and discussed in further detail in section 4.1, the organisational cohort of the DGSE introduced five new directorates. The choice behind this was to improve structural coherence along with communications between each designated section. (Source) (Source)

    The DGSE's headquarters entrance, taken from across the street.

    The DGSE is led by the Directeur Général who oversees the organisation and parlays with more authoritative figures within government and the wider community. Following this, is the Deputy Director who as mentioned, helps to run the daily activities of the DGSE. Sitting comfortably within the jurisdiction of the Ministère des Armées, the DGSE works closely alongside the DRM (military intelligence) and DRSD (military counterintelligence). 

    4.1 Directorates 

    Forming the central nervous system of what makes the DGSE the entity which it is today are five directorates. Like any machine with moving parts and highly intricate pieces, each directorate performs a specific function. (Source)

    4.1.1 Les Centres de Missions

    The Mission Centres, otherwise orchestrates the collection and analysis of intelligence for the DGSE. To this end, they use the tools available through HUMINT and TECHINT amongst themselves and the FIC. As such, they work in conjunction with the analysis directorate to prepare intelligence for dissemination with senior leaders and government. As of 2022, there are 10 or so mission centres tasked with specific areas in the world. 

    4.1.2 La Direction de la Recherche et des Opérations

    The DRO or Directorate of Intelligence Collection and Operations, is responsible for the HUMINT intelligence collection in the DGSE. Other than employing officers to liaise with agents abroad, the DRO is also responsible for the DGSE’s Action Division. An elite clandestine group, Action Division or SA handle the agency’s black operations which would rather go unnoticed. 

    4.1.3 La Direction Technique et de L’innovation

    The Technical and Innovation Directorate is responsible for COMINT and SIGINT capabilities in DGSE and the FIC overall. Fundamentally, France have no dedicated SIGINT agency. The directorate works alongside the DRM, France’s military intelligence agency, allowing the DGSE to pool resources with their sister agencies. 

    4.1.4 La Direction de L’administration

    The logistical and administrative component of the DGSE, the Directorate of Administration is responsible for more than just human resources. As a part of the DGSE’s strategy to ‘privatise’ their buildings and installations, the DGSE runs private firms and companies nationwide as a ‘front’ for their operations. As such, the directorate manages the financial upkeep and maintenance of their real estate arsenal. 

    4.1.5 Le Secretariat General pour L’analyse et la Stratégie 

    The General Secretariat for Analysis and Strategy, (SGAS) works alongside the directorates to disseminate intelligence directly to those in government. In addition to this, they structure the planning and direction taken for the DGSE and liaise with foreign services. 

    4.2 Specialisation

    Functionally, the DGSE is a hybrid agency. Given its size, both HUMINT and TECHINT are widely used by the agency to source intelligence. In part, this is due to the military oversight and access the agency has, allowing SIGINT and COMINT to be widely used at military installations and vice versa. 

    Interestingly, the DGSE also conducts what they call ‘contre-ingérence’ or counter interference. Primarily, such work would fall under the guise of the DGSI. However, within France national security and French identity through La Francophonie means the DGSE takes upon itself offensive counterintelligence.  

    Finally, the DGSE employs a range of SOF through Special Operations Command (COS) to assist in matters of national security. Working behind enemy lines, the Commandos Marine, in particular the elite tier 1 Commandos Hubert. However, the DGSE employs their own means of covert and clandestine activity through their own section of elite forces.

    4.3 Action Division

    Experts in clandestine activity, the DGSE’s Action Division are elite operators tasked with black operations for the intelligence service. Dating back to 1946, the SA has been a tool used by France for decades. For the most part, operatives are extensively recruited from the military, in particular the special forces. Overall, there are three subdivisions within the group tasked with aerial, land, and naval insertions.

    • Centre Parachutiste d’Instruction Spécialisé (CPIS)
    • Centre Parachutiste d’Entrainement Spécialisé (CPES)
    • Centre Parachutiste d’Entraînement aux Opérations Maritimes (CPEOM)

    Perhaps the most notable operation conducted by the group was Operation Satanique in 1985. Also known as the Rainbow Warrior Incident, the operation saw the deliberate sabotage of the aforementioned vessel killing one journalist accidentally. Subsequently, more is widely known of their controversies rather than their successes. Nonetheless, the SA are truly clandestine experts worthy of further reading. 

    Emblem of the Action Division showing an eagle over a black and red star ontop of a parachute
    Emblem of Action Division. Wikicommons

    ‘Deep inside us, we carry the experience of clandestine activities’

    -Bernard Emie, Director General

    4.4 A military organisation?

    The DGSE is indeed unlike any other western foreign intelligence service, a notable difference is its jurisdiction under the Ministère des Armées, France’s MoD. Unlike the CIA or SIS, the DGSE hierarchical structure places it within the military, run partly by the military and to a lesser extent for them, but, is conclusively an agency directed towards the collection of foreign intelligence for the state. In fact, it wasn’t until 1999 that the agency allowed for the recruitment of civilian personnel.

    As such, the DGSE is run alongside two other sister agencies: La Direction du Renseignement Militaire (DRM) and the Direction du Renseignement et de la Sécurité de la Défense (DRSD). DRM is the military branch of the intelligence service. Created in 1992, its purpose was to ease the workload of intelligence work from the DGSE into a more centralised structure for the military. (Source)

    4.5 Budget and Personnel

    Officially, the DGSE’s budget is within the public domain, voted upon by France’s legislative system in Parliament. However, remains a secret into the inner workings and budget of where and what this money is spent on. That being said, in 2021 the DGSE budget was at €880 million. In 2023, President Macron pushed for the defence budget to be raised by 40%, with military intelligence raised by over 60%. By July €413 billion was approved by Parliament. As of 2019, the DGSE had a staff count of over 7,000 personnel, larger than by 5,000 of what SIS is estimated to have. As of today, the DGSE has a staff of 6,581 with 1/3 being directly from the military and a target of 900 each year. (Source) (Source) (Source) (Source) (Source) (Source)

    4.6 Recruitment

    In order to join the DGSE, candidates can apply through the agency’s website. As such, recruitment paths differ given the military and civilian diversity within the agency. Such instances include regular transfers, new contracts or reserve options for the military with civil servants facing a more bureaucratic process. In addition to their recruitment, students are encouraged through internships and apprenticeships as an early careers option. Overall, there are four criteria to join the DGSE. (Source)

    • Match the educational or demonstrate working knowledge in a candidates target area. 
    • Possess a criminal record no higher than a B2 (B1 being misdemeanours) 
    • Taking part in and completing your Journée Défense et Citoyenneté (JDC), this event takes place annually with all French nationals aged 16 to 25. Fundamentally, people within this age bracket learn of France’s military and geopolitical place in the world. Taking part in this activity is mandatory for those who wish to pursue higher education or even a driver licence. 
    • Hold French Nationality, a requirement to be able to endure the services vetting process and pass.

    4.6.1 Outsourcing Talent

    The DGSE runs extensive recruiting initiatives given the agency’s size and manpower. In 2019, the DGSE set out to increase their talent pool from 7,000 to 8,500 by 2022. However, reportedly lacked any credible talent qualified enough to join the ranks of the DGSE, inciting a candidate quality crisis for the DGSE after an expensive marketing campaign. Overall, there exist over 79 job titles within 22 areas of the DGSE, ranging from being a linguist to a crypto-mathematician. (Source) (Source)

    Today, France recruits their pool of talent through creative and engaging methods. In partnership with Telecom Sud Paris Engineering School, the DGSE hosts 404 CTF, organised to attract the nation’s cyber talent. As mentioned, the DGSE is largely responsible for the nation’s signal and cyber intelligence capabilities, thus it actively seeks to recruit at colleges (high school) and universities nationwide. Throughout 404 CTF, students are given tasks to find hidden code in a game of Capture the Flag, ultimately being a challenge which requires unethical hacking. (Source)

    4.7 Training

    Once officers have passed the recruitment phase of joining the DGSE, they train at L’académie du renseignement. Created in 2010, the intelligence academy is a mixed institution of academia and officer training across all branches within the FIC. Although physical training and smaller lecturers are given at the discretion of the DGSE, those in a more senior role are selected to go to the academy. Fundamentally, the academy offers to bridge the divide between intelligence culture, higher education and the services to create a network of knowledge and culture. (Source)

    4.8 Economic Intelligence

    Across the Anglosphere, intelligence has served at the benefit of informing state decisions and planning for policy and defence. Overall, this is an all encompassing element to which issues of security, economy, and at times political instability are touched upon. Dating back to the reign of Louis XIV, France has employed agents to conduct economic espionage upon others. Today, France continues this through the DGSE working alongside her domestic sister agencies TRACFIN and DNRED. 

    In the 1960’s the CIA reported that France along with Israel were the worst offenders of economic espionage in the US continuing well into the 1990’s. To this end, a wikileaks report in 2011 highlighted in a US diplomatic cable dated in 2009 that France continues to exert economic espionage and intelligence collection on its allies, in this case: Germany to which the damage done according to the leak was worse than China or Russia. (Source) (Source) (Source)

    “In terms of the most capable, next to the Chinese, are the French — and they’ve been doing it a long time.”

    Former CIA Director Robert Gates (Source)

    5.0 Equipment

    Typically, French intelligence officers do not carry any weapons at all given the nature of the role. However, if deployed abroad a selection of handguns could be at their disposal. The tools used by DGSE agents are largely left undisclosed to the public, lacking any credible material. However what is definitively known is the weaponry typically used by the Action Division of the DGSE, which include a selection of small arms including the FN SCAR and AK pattern rifles. 

    6.0 Operations: a case of failure?

    Globally, intelligence agencies rarely disclose or acknowledge publicly ongoing and past operations. Subsequently, the large majority of known operations are thanks to poor planning or flawed intelligence, leading to scandals and public attention. Consequently, the DGSE is one such agency, it is filled with examples of clandestine activity and heroism but also their failures.

    6.1 Opération Satanique 

    In 1985, the DGSE implicated itself in arguably the largest international scandal in French intelligence history. Employing the Action Division, operators successfully managed to rig and detonate explosives on the GreenPeace vessel ‘Rainbow Warrior’. Unfortunately, the operation led to the death of a journalist on board. Subsequently, New Zealand’s police were quick to apprehend the operators and place them under arrest for murder and arson. The event caused international embarrassment for the French government and strained its relations with New Zealand. President Mitterand fired the DGSE director and gave the armed authority over the DGSE to the military. (Source)

    6.2 The French Operations in the Sahel 

    In 2014, France initiated Operation Barkhane to counter the rising instability across the Sahel against jihadist insurgency. France helped create institutions and security alliances such as the G5 Sahel group to foster peace and security. However, in 2021 Mali endured a military coup partially motivated by rising jihadist instability in the country. Burkina Faso and Niger also suffered coups and by the end of 2023, France had been functionally ‘expelled’ from all three countries, shrinking French influence in the region. 

    French leadership and the public wanted to know why the DGSE was unable to warn them of the sudden wave of coups. The explanation largely rests in two common denominators. Russian influence and French leadership. In recent years, Wagner PMC had been gaining considerable influence across the African continent at the expense of the UN and France.

    However, the DGSE also failed to predict political instability across the Sahel because of competing priorities In 2022, the chief of the DRM resigned over failure to predict the Ukraine invasion. Additionally, it reportedly failed to provide evidence of an impending coup in September later that year. Meanwhile, the DGSE itself was facing structural reorganisation and political upheaval due to the intelligence failure to predict the Ukraine invasion. (Source) (Source) (Source)

    6.3 DGSE in Ukraine?

    Back in 2022, during the offset of the Ukraine war, French newspaper Le Figaro reported that the DGSE was active in the country. According to their intelligence source, DGSE operatives assisted with the collection and analysis of IMINT on Russian positions. In addition to this, such operatives are too likely working to train and assist Ukrainian servicemen on French Ceasar artillery. Ultimately, such operatives are likely to be the Action Division which the source indicates 50 or so men are involved. Interestingly, on 17 January 2024, Russia claimed to have killed a number of ‘French Mercenaries’ in Kharkiv, Ukraine. However, French authorities have been quick to dismiss the claim, citing it as Russian propaganda and a disinformation piece. (Source) (Source)

    image of three Ceasar self propelled artillery
    French Ceasar Self Propelled Artillery during exercise Dynamic Front in Denmark. Ukraine now has 49 of these systems. DVIDS

    6.4 Shamshad: A Forgotten Network 

    Also known as Division 915, was an intelligence cell of the DGSE in partnership with Afghans intelligence agency NDS. France was one of the nations involved within the US led coalition into Afghanistan. As the war dragged on, President François Holland decided to withdraw French troops by 2014. However, the DGSE remained, collecting intelligence in service of France’s national interest. 

    Recruiting over 90 agents and officers, Division 915 reportedly became one of the largest DGSE operations during its inception. Shamshad conducted both intelligence collection and reportedly clandestine activity. Originally, the intelligence they collected was orientated towards safeguarding French troops through their HUMINT sources. By the time France departed, this shifted to safeguarding the Afghan government and combating terrorism at home. Additionally, this included monitoring French citizens susceptible to radicalisation and their movements into Afghanistan. 

    However, the subsequent fall of Kabul in August 2021 marked the end to US hegemony in the region. Not only did the GWOT symbolically end that day, but so did the livelihoods for the DGSE agents trapped there. Within Shamshad, only 30 agents and officers evacuated from Kabul. To date, many still remain in hiding both outside and within Afghanistan. (Source) (Source)

    “We were abandoned, France did not contact us to help us”

    ‘Zubeir’ Shamshad translator (Source)

    7.0 The Future

    In December 2023, the FIC went through a historical change of leadership in which the DGSE and DGSI inaugurated new directors. A previous director of the DGSI, Nicholas Lerner will now lead the DGSE’s efforts as France’s first line of defence. Interestingly, this placement comes not long after the collapse of French influence in the Sahel. Least to mention, the close relationship of both President Macron and Nicholas Lerner have. Placing the executive in close proximity to the DGSE’s future efforts. 

    Meanwhile, the DGSI is appointing Celine Berthon, an experienced civil servant within and previously director of the national police. Additionally, Berthon will be the first woman in France to hold the role as director in the intelligence service, as well as being the youngest. Elsewhere, the deputy director of the DGSE and previous commander of France’s ComCyber, left the agency in 2023. Instead, General Olivier Bonnet will be joining Orange Cyberdefense, a part of Orange, a leading French telecom provider. (Source) (Source) (Source)

    7.1.1 A New Purpose?

    The subsequent change in leadership hasn’t appeared out of nowhere. In fact, France and her intelligence service face challenging prospects for the future. In 2023, French influence and fortitude collapsed under the weight of their exodus across the Sahel as anti French rhetoric and unfriendly regimes established themselves. The question asked by many in Paris was ‘how could we not see this coming?’. Following the coup in Niger, both President Macron and DGSE director exchanged heavy blows of finger pointing, over a failure to act on intelligence. Therefore, it is likely we will see France and the DGSE focus on maintaining what is left of France’s influence in Africa. (Source)

    8.0 Conclusion

    Demonstrating a strong history of clandestine and covert activity, the DGSE continues to orchestrate such operations. Renseignement in France shares a different outlook than the US and UK. It is convoluted, highly political, and has a poor relationship with the media. However, France’s intelligence culture is changing, such is the DGSE. The service will continue to serve as France’s leading external agency. Additionally, given its size and global outreach, it will remain a major intelligence player for the foreseeable future. 

    Joseph Balodis
    Joseph Balodis
    Is a recent graduate in MA Intelligence & Security Studies, completing the H4MoD program in 2023 and holding a BA in Contemporary History & Politics at the University of Salford. His interest focus is on Sahelian and West African security, French intelligence, and international relations.

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