How Did Spy Services Develop in France?

Espionage, in the French monarchy period, has become notorious in suppressing aspirations of those who sought to loosen the bonds of the monarchy in the late 18th century. The history of spying in France, similar to other European powers, started because of interests in security and developed to both external and internal espionage. This has also shaped subsequent periods after the French Revolution. World War II also set the stage for modern French Espionage.

Early Development

Similar to England, the French nobility in the 16th and 17th centuries proved to be at times a difficult group to control for the monarch. During the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715), spying (internally and externally), developed in France as the country became the main power on the European continent and was the leader of the Catholic states. Louis was well known to use a variety of spies, particularly his diplomats. However, he also used many women, as he found them useful in infiltrating powerful men. For instance, Louise-Renée de Penacoët, who became a mistress to Charles II, was used to spy on the English king. Using her liaison with the king, she passed on vital information to the French regarding English intentions and alliances. Louis also send emissaries and spies to his main rivals the Dutch during the period of William of Orange (1689-1702).[1]

It was the threat of the Huguenots and French nobles that required the French kings to develop spies that can infiltrate French society. During Louis XIV's reign, remaining rights of the Huguenots were taken away and French nobles felt the loss of their power as Louis centralized the state. This led Louis to use informants within the Huguenots and nobles as a way to undermine them. Thus, critical to a central state bureaucracy that efficiently ran the country was a country that required spies at every level so that rebellious areas of France can be know before any major problems broke out. Spies among the poor commoners and nobility became well know, creating a type of police state. The Affair of the Poisons and other conspiracies led to a more paranoid state for the French monarchy.[2]

Figure 1. Louise Renée de Penancoët helped spy for Louis XIV.

Before and After the French Revolution

Prior to the French Revolution, France had begun developing elaborate spy networks that spanned Russia to the East and England to the North. Famous spies included Chevalier d'Éon, who had androgynous characteristics that made him asuitable as a female and male spy. In fact, he was known as a woman for over 33 years and penetrated the Russian court as a female spy. However, in other aspects, the Chevalier performed as a male spy and soldier. It was only at his death that his true sex was determined to many, even among his French allies.[3]

During the French Revolution, many spies, often working for multiple sides, arose. The French Revolution was, on the one hand, a great fear for the monarchies in Europe, but on the other hand also an opportunity to infiltrate France by outside powers. One such spy was Emmanuel Henri Louis Alexandre. He initially supported the French Revolution and became an early member of the National Constitutional Assembly that formed after the deposing of the French (Bourbon) monarchy. He famously changed his mind, after Marie Antoinette, a former love interest, was seized by the revolutionaries. The Jacobines, a radical group in the French revolutionaries, were often most worried about spies and created counter spies to look out for any counter-revolutionaries. Their paranoia, however, likely led to the demise of many innocent people, leading to those supporting the revolution to turn against them. The fear of spying during the so-called "Reign of Terror," in effect, helped lead to the downfall of the revolution's ideals, although that would later live on, as the state became more oppressive than it was even during the monarchy period. That paved the way for Napoleon's takeover as discontent arose.[4]

After the takeover by Napoleon, plots involving various international and national spies were devised to depose Napoleon. This included the Plot of the rue Saint-Nicaise in 1800, led by Pierre Robinault de Saint-Régeant and others, that attempted to blow up a bomb as Napoleon passed by. This plot failed, where it only succeeded in killing innocent people, but led Napoleon to become more paranoid with his safety. The increased paranoia by Napoleon and European powers as Napoleon began to become stronger developed into a network of spies and counter spies that attempted to infiltrate the courts of his adversaries. Napoleon successfully, for instance, used spies to help bring down the reign of Gustav IV Adolf, the king of Sweden, and place a successor who was more friendly to France.[5]

Recent Periods

After the turbulent years of the Napoleonic wars, French spying became more professionalized. The need for foreign intelligence became apparent after the French defeat in the Fanco-Prussian war in 1870-1871. The development of military intelligence was a result of this. This became known as the Deuxième Bureau, the agency in charge of French military spying and intelligence. The spy agency continued until 1940, when France fell to Germany. Notable success included early cryptanalytical work that helped in breaking foreign codes and communications. However, the agency suffered in the Dreyfus Affair, where notable military officers were accused or convicted of spying for Germany in the 1890s and injustice for a junior officer, Alfred Dreyfus, in being accused of being a spy proved to make the French military and its spying networks suffer in their reputation.[6]

Another famous case was that of Mata Hari. She was a Dutch citizen living in France during World War I and became known for her exotic dancing where she later was approached by the Deuxième Bureau for her participation in spying because she could freely travel to neutral European countries. She famously may have said about herself "A harlot? Yes, but a traitor, never!." She became a double agent, initially sent to spy on Germany, but later spying on France. She helped the Germans uncover spies and proved valuable in German counter-espionage efforts. The uncovering of spies by Germany led to her suspicion and eventually she was arrest and then executed. [7]

French external spying suffered greatly in reputation after the failures to predict Germany's invasion routes in 1940. After World War II, France developed the General Directorate for External Security (DGSE), which became the equivalent to MI6 in Britain. Notable successes included accurately predicting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which the CIA had failed to anticipate, and uncovering Europe's largest technology spying network.[8]

The Directorate of Territorial Security, which developed after World War II, and succeeded by the General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI or initially the DCRI; since 2008) has led France's internal spying and anti-terrorism efforts within France. The DGSI also merged aspects of the General Intelligence Directorate, which also had responsibilities for internal security, although it was an arm more for the police and focused on efforts such as narcotics. French internal espionage often concentrated on networks within France trying to steal technology. However, a notable success came in 1981, when the notable Soviet KGB spy Vladimir Vetrov switched sides and gave France thousands of documents that helped it uncover KGB officers stationed worldwide. It was one of the greatest successes for France in the Cold War and one of the largest successes for NATO allies in counter-espionage. However, the DGSI also participated in internal espionage. Once its agents were caught posing as plumbers in France as they were trying to install listening devices in a newspaper critical of the government. This led to the downfall of the interior minister.[9]

Figure 2. Mata Hari (or Margaretha Geertruida "Margreet" MacLeod) was a famous double agent in World War I who ultimately was executed.


The creation of a central French state in the 16th and 17th centuries and internal unrest that came during the Protestant Reformation led to the development of spy networks within France that attempted to facilitate the French state's power. In the French Revolution, spies often switched sides and the great upheaval and fear caused by the state led to great fear of spies, both by the government and the population. The disaster of the Franco-Prussian war helped shape the French Republic's first professional spying agency that did have some notable success, but the state's downfall in World War II and the rise of the Cold War subsequently shaped new internal and external spy agencies. Since the 2000s, terrorism and technology espionage have been seen as the greatest threats that France's spy agencies have attempted to counter.


  1. For more on Louis XIV and his spies, see: Young, W. (2004) International politics and warfare in the age of Louis XIV and Peter the Great: a guide to the historical literature . New York, NY, Universe.
  2. For more on spying within France during the age of Louis XIV, see: Jeffreys-Jones, R. (2013) In spies we trust: the story of Western intelligence. First edition. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  3. For more on Chevalier d'Éon, see: Burrows, S., Conlin, J., Goulbourne, R. & Mainz, V. (2010) The Chevalier d’Eon and his worlds gender, espionage and politics in the eighteenth century. Bloomsbury Academic; London.
  4. For more on spying during the French Revolution, see: Brown, H.G. (2006) Ending the French Revolution: violence, justice, and repression from the terror to Napoleon. Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press.
  5. For more on Pierre Robinault de Saint-Régeant, see: Falk, A. (2007) Napoleon against himself: a psychobiography. 1st ed. Charlottesville, Va, Pitchstone Pub.
  6. For more on the Dryfus Affair and the Deuxième Bureau, see: Porch, D. (1995) The French secret services: from the Dreyfus Affair to the Gulf War. London, Macmillan, pg. 19.
  7. For more on Mata Hari, see: Howe, R.W. (1986) Mata Hari, the true story. 1st ed. New York, Dodd, Mead.
  8. For more on the DGSE, see: Polisar, P. (2003) Inside France’s DGSE: the General Directorate for External Security. Inside the world’s most famous intelligence agencies. 1st ed. New York, Rosen Pub. Group.
  9. For more on the DGSI and its equivalents in post-World War II France, see: Derdzinski, J.L. (2009) Internal security services in liberalizing states: transitions, turmoil, and (in)security. Farnham, England ; Burlington, VT, Ashgate Publishing Co, pg. 57.