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OPINION

Eye on France: Is there a spy in the house?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un leads the testing of a newly developed tactical weapon, in this undated photo released on November 16, 2018 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un leads the testing of a newly developed tactical weapon, in this undated photo released on November 16, 2018 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) KCNA

This week the French Senate, the upper house of parliament, has been stunned by the arrest of one of its top administrators, suspected of spying for North Korea. The French media are having a field day.

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Benoît Quennedey doesn’t look a bit like James Bond.

He is, in fact, a forty-two-year-old French civil servant, currently helping the police with their enquiries into a case of possible espionage.

Our man Ben is suspected of spying for... well no, not China, Russia or Iran. If he’s working for anybody, Ben is working for the North Korean dictator, Kim Jung-un.

Why North Korea?

Why, you might ask, would anybody want to sell secrets to a regime that can’t pay its electricity bill? And what sort of secrets can be in the hands of a man who works in the administration of the French Senate’s Architecture, Heritage and Gardens division?

There’s clearly more to this than meets the common eye. Because Benoît Quennedey is being investigated for “collecting and delivering to a foreign power information likely to prejudice the fundamental interests of the French nation”. And that investigation has been under way for the past ten months.

Serious stuff. And, if he’s found guilty, Benoît faces a maximum of ten years in jail and a €150,000 fine.

Despite the thinness of the case, the French papers are full of it.

Conservative daily Le Figaro says the man arrested on Sunday by the French Interior Security Services has an “intriguing profile” and that the case is worthy of spy novelist John le Carré.

The Le Figaro article doesn’t explain why they think Benoît is intriguing. His office in the Senate looks out on the Luxembourg Gardens. He has written two books on North Korea. He has frequently appeared on our sister channel France 24 to talk about the Stalinist regime which runs what Le Figaro calls “the most closed country in the world”.

Ben has been there at least seven times, most recently in September, for the 70th anniversary celebrations of the Kim dynasty.

He makes no secret of his enthusiasm for a country which could, he argues in one of his books, be the next Asian tiger, or dragon, economy, thanks to its cheap, disciplined and well-educated workforce, and the untouched abundance of natural resources.

'Enigmatic' case

Benoît is also the president of the French-Korean Friendship Association, possibly not the most discrete cover for a man engaged in spying.

Left-leaning Libération says the man at the centre of the case is “enigmatic”. They also say that he’s forty years old, two years less than Le Figaro, a clear indication of the sort of intrigue and enigma we have come to associate with master spies.

Libé also says he’s a member of the Radical Left Party, which is certainly enigmatic, that party having gone out of business in December, 2017.

The plot, as John le Carré would probably not have put it, thickens.

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