A while back, I noticed a brief reference in the N.Y. Times to a French spy thriller titled “The Bureau” that sounded intriguing. The Times reviewer described it as “a workplace drama with an arthouse aesthetic, set at an unusually exciting office: the D.G.S.E. (France’s equivalent of the C.I.A.).” It added that you might want to pass on it if you’re looking for James Bond-style chase scenes or can’t stand being confused.
Now that I have begun Season Two of “The Bureau” on Amazon via a $7.99 per month Sundance Channel subscription, I can report that this is on the same level as the 1965 film version of “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.” Like John le Carré, the creative team behind “The Bureau” are far more interested in the psychological aspects of the spy trade that involve wholesale deception. Like the actors who portray the characters in “The Bureau,” spies must lie for a living. Or, to use a less judgmental term, pretend.
Unlike the typical spy movie that features men and women with extraordinary powers, those in “The Bureau” are all too human. You never see them in a spectacular knife fight like Matt Damon in his very first Jason Bourne role. Instead, they are mostly sitting at desks staring at computer monitors as I did in my 44-year programming career. Instead of debugging Cobol programs, however, they are typically monitoring the movements of their targets through G.P.S.
Lacking the geopolitical framework of the Cold War that gave birth to both inspired literature such as “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” or imperialist propaganda like the James Bond novels, “The Bureau” takes place within the context of the Middle East of today. The General Directorate for External Security (D.G.S.E.) is the first line of defense (or attack, more accurately) against Islamic fundamentalist terror networks, Iran’s potential threat as a nuclear power, and the Syrian dictatorship’s grip over its people. Given such a conflict, most people on the left, including me, might be wary of a story-line that is likely to echo the conventional wisdom of the liberal national-security state. Do we expect France to be any different than the U.S.? Whether you were serving Barack Obama or François Hollande, the goal is to extend imperial influence in the name of peace and democracy.
Like all great art, the “message” is less important here than the human drama. Even if most Shakespeare plays glorify the British monarchy, you stick with them out of a need to be moved by the spectacle of King Lear raging against his daughters’ disloyalty. While “The Bureau,” is certainly not in the Bard’s league artistically, it is some of the best television I have seen since I have been covering the film beat for CounterPunch.
The main character is Guillaume “Malotru” Debailly (Matthieu Kassovitz), who has just returned to Paris in 2015 after serving six years undercover in Damascus. (Malotru, his nom de guerre, is French for lout.) His cover was teaching under the name of Paul Lefevbre at a college serving a wealthier and opposition-minded student body that might yield possible recruits to the D.G.S.E.’s spy network. While in Damascus, he started an affair with Nadia El Mansour (Zineb Triki), a Syrian history professor who was working secretly with other elite opposition figures. They likely shared the goal of most Western powers, namely a sanitized Assadism without Assad. She only knows him as Paul Lefevbre, not as a spy and he has no idea that she is secretly negotiating the terms for a peaceful transition in Syria. Their hidden identities, like others that crop up continuously in the series, lead to a combination of political and personal crises.
After Debailly returns to France to decompress from his assignment, he is both surprised and pleased to learn that Nadia El Mansour has arrived to meet with key players on both sides in the Syrian conflict, including a Russian. Keep in mind that in 2015 all bets were off on Assad’s survival. In keeping track of her activities, a Syrian spy named Nadim learns Paul Lefebvre’s true identity and concludes that his lover must also be a French agent. Upon her return to Syria, the police take her into custody and subject her to the cruel methods that have led to the killing of tens of thousands of her countrymen. Since she is unaware of French spying in Syria, the punishment is unproductive, as is generally the case with these types of interrogations.
Determined to win her freedom, Debailly makes a decision that will turn his world upside-down. He brokers a deal with the C.I.A. that will secure Nadia’s freedom. If they provide him the name of the Syrians on their payroll, he will release their identity to the dictatorship. The Syrians are not satisfied with that information. Unbeknownst to Debailly, she agrees to serve as a mole to Assad’s security department about the discussions going on in exile circles. Meanwhile, on top of all that, Debailly agrees to become a mole for the C.I.A. as the price of getting the names of the Syrian oppositionists. This rat’s nest of multiple loyalties becomes so tangled that it is almost impossible to follow. In a way, it doesn’t matter since “The Bureau” always sorts things out eventually. If you are into simplistic plotlines, go watch reruns of “24” or “Homeland.”
As Guillaume Debailly, Matthieu Kassovitz is superlative. His character is almost always inscrutable except when he is in touch with the women he loves, either Nadia or his daughter Prune (Alba Gaïa Bellugi). Regarded as one of the best agents in the “Bureau of Legends,” the D.S.G.E. department responsible for training and handling those working in the field, Debailly swears above all to the value of loyalty. Like the mafia, police departments close ranks against those on the outside. When it comes to rescuing the woman he loves, he forsakes loyalty and thus his raison d’être. As for the missions he and others undertake in the field, there is minimal conversation about whether they serve the broader interests of human rights or even French national interests.
Probably, the most startling twist in “The Bureau” is the willingness of the French and the Americans to place moles in each other’s agencies. Since there is no honor among thieves, this is what we’d suspect all along. One of the most high-profile instances of ostensible allies in a cloak-and-dagger operation was the case of Jonathan Pollard, who provided top-secret information to the Mossad when he worked in Naval Intelligence in the U.S. Even with the powerful clout of the Israeli lobby, Pollard remained behind bars for decades.
In 2013, Edward Snowden revealed that the N.S.A. had been snooping into the confidential documents and phone calls of the D.G.S.E. and other presumptive allied spy agencies. The French were also playing the same kind of game years earlier. Between the early 1970s to the late 1980s, it infiltrated agents into major U.S. companies, such as Texas Instruments, I.B.M. and Corning. Their job was to relay high technology secrets to France in the same way Chinese agents do today. In many ways, the back-stabbing is reminiscent of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” or “The Sopranos” in which loyalties come and go like the seasons of the year.
Just as James Gandolfini was critical to the success of “The Sopranos,” Matthieu Kassovitz is pivotal to “The Bureau.” His father is a Hungarian Jew named Peter Kassovitz, who fled to France in the aftermath of the 1956 revolution and became a successful film director, screenwriter, and actor in France. Like his father, Matthieu Kassovitz is multi-talented. He wrote and directed “La Haine,” (Hate) a 1995 film about three young friends in the Paris banlieues who regard the cops as mortal enemies.
Asked by the N.Y. Times in a July 12, 2016 interview to describe his character, Kassovitz replied, “Malotru is a guy with an ethic, and sometimes your personal ethic goes against your professional orders. And what you have to do for your country is not exactly what you need to do for yourself. So you get your hand stuck in that machine: If you lie once, then you have to lie all the time.” That is about as apt a description of his character and every other role in D.G.S.E. as I can imagine.
In a 2013 interview with The Guardian, Kassovitz explained why he failed to become the next Godard or Truffaut (his father Peter was featured in Godard’s 1962 “My Life to Live”). He blamed it on the French malaise that continues to this day:
Politics, I think. I’m not really proud to be French any more. I was when I did La Haine, but nobody’s fighting any more. Nobody’s going in the streets to say what they want. Everybody’s numb. And it’s not good because when they jolt out of it, it’s going to go to some extremes we don’t want. I think that’s where France is going right now, and I don’t like it one bit. It’s not what we were.
While it is beyond the scope of this review to say much about the history of the D.G.S.E., some highlights are worth pointing out.
The D.S.G.E. originated as the D.G.S.S. (General Directorate of Special Services) during WWII just as the C.I.A. originated as the O.S.S. In a striking anomaly, its first chief was Jacques Soustelle, who, in addition to his role as a top officer of the Gaullist resistance, was an anthropologist specializing in Pre-Columbian civilizations and vice-director of the Musée de l’Homme in Paris in 1939. When I first began writing about indigenous peoples over twenty years ago, I found his “Daily Life of the Aztecs” invaluable.
While predisposed to the indigenous peoples of Mexico, Soustelle had a much more typical security agency attitude toward the Algerian natives. Serving as the Governor-General of Algeria, he became a bitter enemy of Algerian independence and joined the fascist O.A.S.
President François Mitterrand launched the new security agency known as the D.S.G.E. in 1982. He hoped to break with past abuses as part of his socialist agenda. In a prior manifestation as the S.D.E.C.E. (Service de documentation extérieure et de contre-espionnage), it was involved in the kidnapping and presumed murder of Mehdi Ben Barka, a Moroccan revolutionary living in Paris.
So, what could the French expect from a reformed D.S.G.E.? It’s most high-profile action was blowing up the Rainbow Warrior, the Greenpeace ship, in Auckland harbor on July 10, 1985. The ship was preparing to monitor French nuclear tests at the Pacific island of Mururoa. At first, the left could not believe that Mitterrand would give the green light to such a monstrous deed. It must have been a rogue action done without his knowledge. Twenty years later, the world learned that Mitterrand was no better than Jacques Soustelle. He authorized the terrorist assault in clear violation of his professed ideals about peace and social justice. Democracy Now featured an interview with David Robie, a journalist on board the Rainbow Warrior that day. Amy Goodman asked him to comment on the news that Mitterrand’s memorandum authorizing the had turned up. He said:
Well, it’s been largely received in New Zealand with a certain amount of a “ho-hum, well, we thought so all along.” Most of the reaction, certainly in New Zealand, is that, well, you know, it was no surprise. You know, people have more or less accepted for the best part of 20 years that although it was not, you know, absolutely certain before that Mitterrand had actually sort of authorized the attack, it’s been more or less accepted in New Zealand that that was probably the case. It’s just interesting that Sir Geoffrey Palmer, who was the Deputy Prime Minister in New Zealand at the time of the bombing said — his reaction when confronted with this news from Le Monde, he said it’s very disappointing, because one would not expect the president of a friendly nation to authorize an illegal act against the nation with whom you enjoy friendly relations and with whom you fought in two world wars. That seems to me to be rather extraordinary. So that was Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s reaction.
An illegal act against the nation with whom you enjoy friendly relations and with whom you fought in two world wars? I don’t know. That sounds exactly how France has been operating all along. We can thank “The Bureau” for making this clearer than ever in dramatic terms.