LUXEMBOURG/PARIS: France summoned the U.S. ambassador on Monday after a report in Le Monde newspaper underlined the scale and breadth of alleged spying on French citizens by the U.S. National Security Agency.
The allegations that the agency collected tens of thousands of French phone records tested France's relations with Washington just as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Paris for the start of a European tour over Syria.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Le Monde's report on Monday that 70.3 million items of French telephone data were recorded by the NSA between Dec. 10, 2012 and Jan. 8, 2013 were "unacceptable".
The NSA's targets appeared to be individuals suspected of links to terrorism, but also people tied to French business or politics, the report said.
"We have extremely useful cooperation with the United States in the struggle against terrorism, but this cooperation does not justify everything," Fabius told reporters on the sidelines of a meeting with EU counterparts in Luxembourg.
"So we've asked the United States to provide clarifications, explanations and justifications extremely quickly," he added.
The U.S. embassy in Paris said Ambassador Charles Rivkin had promised Fabius's chief of staff that he would convey France's concerns to Washington.
Rivkin declined immediate comment but stressed that U.S.-French ties were close. "This relationship on a military, intelligence, special forces ... level is the best it's been in a generation," Rivkin told Reuters as Kerry arrived in Paris.
The scope of the NSA's alleged surveillance programme may overshadow a relationship that has appeared strong in recent years as Paris and Washington cooperated closely on national security and united to bring pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to quit power.
In July, Paris prosecutors opened a preliminary inquiry into the NSA's programme, known as Prism, after Britain's Guardian newspaper and Germany magazine Der Spiegel revealed wide-scale spying by the agency leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Despite initial criticism that overshadowed the start of U.S.-EU free-trade talks that month, France's politicians have until now remained relatively quiet as the scale of the NSA's alleged spying efforts became apparent.
But Fabius said two meetings earlier this year between U.S. and EU officials on data protection had not dispelled his government's concerns and did not go far enough.
French President Francois Hollande is to ask other EU leaders at a summit this week to find a solution for protecting citizens' data, Fabius said.
European allies of the United States, including France and regional power Germany, have mixed feelings about the revelations from the Snowden documents that allegedly show how the NSA collects data on foreign targets around the world.
In Germany, where many are particularly sensitive about surveillance given the state's history of spying on its own people during the Cold War, there were protests about the NSA affair over the summer.
But Chancellor Angela Merkel has not been particularly outspoken in her criticism of the programmes, although she did ask U.S. President Obama for explanations during his July visit to Germany.