France steps up cyber defense ahead of elections

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France is no less vulnerable than the United States to cyber attacks from foreign countries and the French military will boost its resources to defend against them, the French defence minister said on Sunday.

In an interview with French weekly Le Journal du Dimanche Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said there is a real risk of cyber attacks on French civil infrastructure such as water, electricity, telecommunications and transport, as well as against French democracy and the media.

US intelligence agencies said in a report released on Friday that Russian President Vladimir Putin had directed a cyber campaign to help Republican Donald Trump’s electoral chances by discrediting Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Asked whether France was immune from such attacks, Le Drian said “No, of course not, we should not be naive”.

France will hold presidential elections in April-May and leading conservative challenger Francois Fillon has said he wants to improve relations with Russia and has been praised by Putin. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen also favours closer relations with Russia.

French-Russian relations have been strained by Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014 and over Russia’s role in the war in Syria. Outgoing socialist French President Francois Hollande has cancelled the sale of warships to Russia, and played a key role in imposing sanctions on Russia over Crimea.

Le Drian said that if the US election had indeed been manipulated, it would be an unbearable interference, as targeting a country’s electoral means attacking its democratic foundations and its sovereignty.

“Our services have discussed the subject, if only to learn lessons for the future,” said Le Drian, who also referred to a cyber attack on French TV station TV5Monde in 2015.

In April 2015, hackers knocked the station off the air. French judicial sources told Reuters later that Russian hackers linked to the Kremlin could have been behind the attack.

Le Drian said the number of cyber attacks against his ministry doubled every year and that in 2016 about 24,000 external attacks had been blocked by security, including attempts at disrupting France’s drone systems.

France should not only be able to defend itself against cyber attacks but should also be able to strike itself when necessary, Le Drian said.

He said the French army’s number of “digital soldiers” would be doubled to 2,600 by 2019, with support of an additional 600 cyber experts.

Le Drian said that in case of a cyber attack, the country could respond in kind as well as with conventional weapons.

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