As we expand the number of Intelligence & Interview series quickly, we are working hard to bring as many different national experiences as possible. As I had personally stated several ways, Int & Int aims to boost a common and enlarged dialogue beyond the usual boundaries, bringing as many perspectives as possible. Considering how close France is to Italy geographically, culturally, and historically (for instance, my mother’s little town still remember the French revolution vividly – not a joke at all), it was my duty to bring the crucial French intelligence perspective. It was then natural to me to approach professor Franck Bulinge, an ex-practitioner, expert in intelligence analysis and disciplines, with a strong, solid grasp on France’s intelligence history and present. In addition, I was delighted to discover his publication in Italian (see below), edited by a common colleague, Giuseppe Gagliano & Cestudec – one of my first supporters in my research and who wrote two precious introductions to two books of mine. Finally, Professor Bulinge is also deeply involved in developing an epistemology of intelligence, recalling the lesson of Isaac Ben-Israel’s research (The Philosophy and Methodology of Intelligence) that deeply shaped the philosophical understanding of intelligence. Then, it is with my distinct pleasure to publish the interview on Scuola Filosofica – for those who don’t know it yet, is one of the leading cultural blogs in Italy. In the name of Scuola Filosofica Team, our readers, and myself, Giangiuseppe Pili, Franck: thank you!
1. Professor Franck Bulinge, let’s start from the basics. How would you like to present yourself to the International readers and Philosophical School (Scuola Filosofica)?
I am a researcher at the Mediterranean Institute of Information and Communication, specialized in information literacy. At the University of Toulon, I teach informational self-defense as well as intelligence analysis, critical thinking, management of crisis information, and last but not least, script writing for web series. I am a glider pilot, I love trekking and I live far from cities in the heart of Provence.
2. Let’s stay closer to your experience. How did you get interested in intelligence in the first place, and what were your main interests?
When I was about 20 years old, I read books on intelligence and especially one whose tittle was SDECE Service 7 by Philippe Bernert. It was the story of a high classified service of the French secret service during the Cold War. It gave me a sudden calling for intelligence. In 1985, as I was an air traffic controller in the French Navy, I volunteered for an intelligence mission which consisted of listening military communications in Libya. It gave me the virus of intelligence. In 1987, I joined the military intelligence school to become a photo interpreter. Then in 1988, I joined this school once again to become a COMINT Arabic interpreter. For 2 years, I learned Arabic and code-breaking before joining a secret service in the French Navy where I performed varied missions overseas. Then I became an analyst specialized in Arabic conflicts. In 2002, I obtained a doctorate and I retired from French Navy to join the University of Toulon where I became lecturer and researcher in information science specialized in intelligence analysis. All in all, I’ve been interested in intelligence for almost 38 years! My main interest, since analysis was my preferred job in intelligence and because there was no actual training for that (and there’s still no training today as far as I know), is the epistemology of intelligence. In other words, I am interested in the nature of actionable knowledge produced by intelligence services. From my point of view, it is the missing dimension of a general philosophy of intelligence, as Isaac Ben Israël rightly pointed out in his book The Philosophy of Intelligence (1999).
3. During the last (at least) six years, France had to face a tough threat from foreign fighters and terrorists directly on its soil. Recently, there was another attack in Nizza. So, why is France one of the most hit EU countries from Islamic terrorism?
Answering this question must be complex. In a few words:
France is a nuclear military power. She’s a Nato member, a US ally and she defends her own strategic and economic interests in the main Muslim areas (Africa and Middle East). At the same time, she inherits the philosophy of the Enlightenment and especially from Voltaire who wrote against religion and “fanatics”, catholic Inquisition as well as Islam. This philosophy is at the origin of the separation of Church and State which occurred in 1905 and gave birth to the doctrine of secularism (in French: “laïcité”) including a radical branch which fought the clerics. Secularism is now a pillar of our republican values. It’s not negotiable.
In the 60’s, as you know France faced the decolonization of her empire. The war in Algeria generated deep resentment on both sides. Later in the 70’s, immigration was organized from Algeria by the French State in order to compensate a lack of labor. For the generation (my parents) who fought and lost their lives in Algeria, this immigration was hardly acceptable. On the other hand, emigrating to France was a kind of humiliation, especially since Algerian immigrants were hated and they held devaluing jobs. In the late 70s, they were offered to bring their family in France. The population of Maghreb immigrants doubled and continued to increase until today. Unlike other immigrations (Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish), Maghreb immigration brought a deeply different culture and religion, which led to a communitarianism exacerbated by the rejection of this population by the French.
Fifty years later, three generations of Muslim immigrants live in France and represent almost 10% of the population. Many of them did not assimilate and do not share the values of the French Republic, including secularism which requires the practice of one’s religion in private. In 1989, the Islamic Headscarf case was the starting point of a deep misunderstanding between France and the Muslim world. At this time, Islamism was progressing through the action of Muslim Brotherhood and the establishment of the Salafists, with the complicity of foreign States and in France, of a certain number of elected officials in towns with strong Muslim component.
The geopolitical situation and the rise of Al Qaida then ISIS as well as the implication of France in Syria, Libya and the Sahel have logically contributed to focusing part of the terrorist strategy against our country.
From my point of view, if you take these elements altogether, you can deduce that France is more exposed to the terrorist threat than other European countries.
4. How is France reacting to this scary scenario? Is the EU prepared to face this level of a terrorist threat?
Since the 90s, France faced Islamic terrorism. So, she adapted her strategy in order to manage and sometimes to anticipate terrorist attacks. For twenty years, the French doctrine has been saluted by counter-terrorist experts in the world. Until 2011, we were actually an example. But I think that it’s time to change our doctrine because threat has changed, and we need to adapt our strategy to its evolution. Once again it is a question of epistemology. We need to take into account the complexity of an interconnected world where intersubjectivity becomes a multilateral fight of ideas, perceptions, and information dominance, from collective to individual levels. Are intelligence services prepared for that evolution? In my opinion, they have to change their methods based on a positivist philosophy inherited from the post-Cold War doctrines (terrorism networks), into a constructivist philosophy of intelligence which takes into account the dynamics of terrorism metamorphoses (quantum terrorism) which themselves take into account the evolutions of counter-terrorism intelligence as well as the role of the media in spreading memes. As I explained in a recent article, we now face a low-level threat which characteristics are to be found in a “quantum theory” of radicalization. So, we need new analysis grids as well as a new doctrinal approach based on this epistemological point of view.
At least, it is important to say that the French population shows a great capacity of resilience. Implicitly we know that we have to live with this threat and it is our strength. The real danger is to focus against Muslims and to split the nation and to lead us into a civil war.
Finally, I don’t know if EU is prepared to face this level of terrorism threat. EU is quite an abstraction, a bureaucratic structure, without political and strategic effectiveness. See what happened with the Covid! European identity is still to be built and what happens in France only affects its close neighbors and its cultural and historical allies, no more.
5. According to you, are we ready for more integrated intelligence sharing in the EU? How do you see the intelligence integration at this stage? Do you think there will be progress in the future?
The aim of intelligence services is to produce actionable knowledge for sovereign political decision-makers. Is EU a sovereign federal government of the United States? Intelligence is still a national restricted activity. Sharing intelligence is a complex game even in the case of counter-terrorism. Each state needs to control its intelligence services and to keep it secret. Can you imagine that the 28 states EU would be able (and unanimous) to conduct intelligence ops and keep it secret, and to assume the risks of such operations?
6. I would like to explore France’s intelligence history. France is an ancient country, especially if compared to Italy, which is much younger comparatively speaking. How would you sum up the early French intelligence history?
In France, national intelligence was officially born with Richelieu under the reign of Louis XIII in the 17th century. It was known as the “Dark Cabinet”. Under the reign of Louis XV, the intelligence service inherited the Dark Cabinet and was named the “Secret of the King”. It was a strategic and diplomatic intelligence service which intercepted the postal mail and conducted influence operations.
Napoleon had a diplomatic secret service under Talleyrand’s authority and himself supervised the military intelligence. But he was skeptical about their reliability.
In the 19th century, French intelligence declined and became mainly a geographic mapping activity. But after the defeat of Sadowa, the general headquarters became aware of the lack of intelligence. In 1868, the first book was written on intelligence by Colonel Jules Louis Lewal: “War Studies: Tactic of intelligence”. In 1871, after the defeat of Sedan, the office of military intelligence was created, known as the “Deuxième Bureau”. It is the birth of the French modern intelligence service. But the young French Intelligence Service was soon scuttled by the Dreyfus Affair. For 10 years, the Deuxième Bureau is officially banned, until 1908, when Colonel Edouard Dupont began to straighten it.
At the beginning of WWI, the French Military intelligence was fully operational and during the war, it was considered as one of the best intelligence services in the world.
For a complete overview of the French Intelligence history, see my book Informazioni e sicurezza esterna francese: una genealogica (1680-2008), Cestudec.
7. France was a particular country with a very independent foreign policy during the Cold War. Is this reflected also in the intelligence world? According to you, how did France manage the Cold War?
I joined intelligence in 1987, quite at the end of the Cold War. From my own point of view, I can say that the French military intelligence organization facing the Warsaw pact was very active and efficient.
COMINT organization, which is still covered by a special secret act, was able to detect and identify each aircraft, tank or warship and submarine from North Sea and Poland to Mediterranean Sea. We had some of the best radio operators to intercept the fast Morse code transmissions of soviet warships and the National radiogoniometry chain was very efficient to localize them.
As IMINT photo-interpreters, we were highly qualified in recognizing covered military equipment transported by train or ships. We hadn’t satellite yet, but we had special aviation squadrons in the Air Force and in the French Navy that carried out aerial reconnaissance missions.
But the very best of French military intelligence against the Warsaw Pact was its HUMINT organization with the French Military Liaison Mission in Berlin. I remember my instructors coming back to school from Berlin. In their eyes you read the secret satisfaction of having achieved some feats like stealing a T72 tank top or so. In my eyes they were heroes. One of them has been killed in mission by the Stasi. His named was engraved above the door of our classroom. You can read two very interesting book on this subject: “Propousk! Missions derrière le Rideau de fer (1947-1949)» by Patrick Magnificat, and «Vostok, Missions de renseignement au Coeur de la guerre froide» by Roland Pietrini.
HUMINT was also carried out by the commandos of the 13rd RDP which was specialized in the penetration of enemy territory.
OSINT was also relevant. By reading soviet newspapers, we were able to update the organizational chart of the Soviet Navy.
Finally, one of the most important intelligence cases of the Cold War, which helped to end it, is the Farewell case. In 1980, a senior KGB officer gave France, via its military attaché, a considerable amount of secret information that made it possible to the US to bring Russians to their knees.
8. Let’s conclude this interview by coming back to the present. You wrote about the epistemology of intelligence. Is this idea elaborated on the French experience? How would you describe the culture of French intelligence? And how do you see its future?
Epistemology is not elaborated in the French experience of intelligence. As I said above, modern French intelligence was born in 1870 and the very first academic writing was published in 1898. But the French Intelligence tradecraft has been built empirically, on what I call a science based on aphorisms. Knowledge and experience were shared on the job. Training was based on this field empirism. There was no scholar culture as far as the first French military and civilian agents didn’t came from the university. They came from middle and low classes, and among them some even came from the underworld. During the 80’s, the French DGSE was predominantly military and there was a lake of intelligence analysis. In 1990 began a profound reform which led the DGSE to become a predominantly civilian intelligence agency with the consequence of being more integrated into the government decision-making process. It took 25 years to achieve this reform but DGSE has opened up to the society and today it is clearly a modern intelligence agency.
At the same time, it took 25 years to see the rise of intelligence teaching and research at the French university. I am one of first and five academics who preached in the wilderness all these years. You will understand my satisfaction to see the fruit of our efforts finally rewarded.
9. How can our readers follow you?
They can follow me on Linkedin
10. Five keywords that represent you?
Passion, curiosity, perseverance, critical thinking, discretion