Two former French spies have been charged with treason for spying for a foreign power, the defence ministry has confirmed, with judicial sources saying the power in question is China.
The two retired spies, along with the spouse of one of the accused pair, were arrested in December, said armed forces minister Florence Parly, warning that the compromised information “could undermine the security of the state”.
The agents are thought to have handed over secrets while still in service for France’s external DGSE intelligence agency, similar to Britain’s MI6 and America’s CIA, Ms Parly told CNews television.
She declined to comment on unconfirmed reports that China was the foreign power in question, however sources close to the investigation told AFP that this was the case.
Both were placed under formal investigation on December 22 to face charges of spying for a foreign power, compromising classified secrets and delivering information detrimental to fundamental national interests.
One of the former agents, whose identities have not be disclosed, also faces charges of directly inciting treason, the source said.
The third person – believed to be the wife – has been indicted for "concealment of treasonable crimes" and placed under “judicial control”, meaning judges keep close tabs on her pending trial.
According to Le Monde, the two ex-spies are suspected of handing over sensitive information on “the working methods” of France’s external intelligence service. Investigators are still determining how long they had been passing along intelligence, she said.
The DGSE itself detected the “extremely serious” behavior of its agents and then contacted French prosecutors, according to the defence ministry.
“The fact that we sounded the alert is proof of our vigilance,” Ms Parly said. "I can’t say much else," she added.
"France has partners but we live in a dangerous world, and unfortunately these types of things can happen."
In a statement, the DGSE said the revelations were “a major area of focus for the DGSE as well all French counter-intelligence services”.
The rare public acknowledgement of the arrest of suspected double agents – which Le Monde called “hugely embarrassing for the state” – came as Australia’s spy chief issued a fresh warning that foreign espionage had reached "unprecedented" levels that could cause "catastrophic harm" to Canberra’s interests.
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Duncan Lewis, head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), told parliament on Thursday night said the "current scale of foreign intelligence activity … is unprecedented”.
He singled out no particular country, but his remarks coincided with a sharp escalation of concerns over Chinese interference in domestic politics.
"Espionage, interference, sabotage and malicious insider activities can inflict catastrophic harm on our country’s interests,” Mr Lewis told a parliamentary hearing in Canberra.
"The grim reality is there are more foreign intelligence officers today than during the Cold War, and they have more ways of attacking us."
Mr Lewis backed government proposals to pass reforms to bolster laws when investigating and prosecuting alleged foreign interference.
The warning came weeks after US authorities said they had indicted a former CIA operative on charges of spying for China, following his arrest in January.
China has long been accused of economic espionage to glean valuable intellectual property, but it is thought to have also ramped up national security operations as its international foreign policy ambitions rise.
Asked on Friday about the arrests in France, China’s foreign ministry said it was unaware of the situation.