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Wary of Russian cyber threat, France plans to bolster its army of 'digital soldiers'

By Robbie Gramer | Foreign Policy | Published: January 11, 2017

Bracing for the new cyber front in warfare, French Defense Ministry Jean Yves Le Drian said France is ramping up its defenses and doubling its ranks of "digital soldiers." In a nod to Russia's meddling in the U.S. elections, he also acknowledged France's infrastructure, media, and democracy are vulnerable to cyber incursions.

In an interview this week with Le Journal du Dimanche, Le Drian said France must respond to an unprecedented level of cyber attacks seeking to "[tarnish] the image of the ministry as well as strategic attacks," such as espionage and attempts to disrupt France's drone system.

France, says Le Drian, is prepared to respond to cyber attacks with more traditional military means. "France reserves the right to respond by all means it deems appropriate," he said. "That could be through the cyber arsenal at our disposal but also by conventional means. Everything would depend on the effects of the attack."

To bolster its cyber capabilities, Le Drian said the French army will double the number of "digital solders" to 2,600 and recruit 600 additional cyber experts by 2019. France will also establish a new cyber command, following in the footsteps of neighboring Germany and the United States, which established its own cyber command in 2009.

Le Drian said France rebuffed some 24,000 cyber intrusions in 2016 alone-and that the number of attacks against ministry double each year.

France is not alone in its need for cyber defenses. The danger is mounting for France's allies, as the recent U.S. presidential election debacle showcased.

In December, U.S. President Barack Obama issued a sweeping set of sanctions against the Russian government for its reported involvement in hacking prominent political operatives, including the Democratic National Committee, during the 2016 presidential election. President-elect Donald Trump repeatedly denied the claims since his election in November, but reportedly acknowledged Russia (among other countries) is "consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure" after the U.S. intelligence community released a declassified report on the subject on Jan. 6, though he reiterated that Russian electoral meddling did not impact the outcome of the election.

France now has its own election to worry about. Le Drian said there haven't been any "signs of operations aimed at destabilizing the French elections," which will be held in April or May 2017. But he said France "should be not naive" to ignore the threat. French political party representatives met with national security services in October to learn what Le Drian called "digital hygiene" in an effort to prevent U.S.-election style hacks.

Experts fear Russia will try to sway elections in Europe to undermine the continent's unity. Nationalist presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, campaigning on an anti-immigrant and anti-EU platform, seeks closer French ties with Russia, borrowed Russian money to bankroll her political operations.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel also warned Russia could try to influence its forthcoming federal elections this year. "We are already, even now, having to deal with information out of Russia or with internet attacks that are of Russian origin or with news which sows false information," she said in November 2016. "That is why it can play a role in the election campaign," she said.

And false information can be a potent political tool. On Saturday, German publications and politicians had to rebuff a story published by Breitbart claiming a mob of 1,000 vandalized a church while chanting "Allahu Akbar" (no such incident took place). Germany is evidently the new frontier for the far-right publication, which was once run by Trump's chief White House strategist Steve Bannon.Germany, like France, is quickly learning that there is more than one way to hack an election.

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