PARIS – France appointed its first woman domestic intelligence chief Wednesday, with top police officer Celine Berthon stepping up to head the General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI).
The 5,000-strong organisation plays a key role in counter-espionage, fighting terrorism and cybercrime.
The rise of Berthon, 47, has been meteoric.
She became number two of France’s national police only in April after being the first woman — and the youngest person — ever to lead its frontline operations in 2021.
Berthon had previously headed the police commissioners’ union.
– ‘The Bureau’ –
The policewoman replaces Nicolas Lerner, who is taking over France’s DGSE foreign espionage service made famous by the fictional hit series “The Bureau”.
His appointment is also historic — the first time that a former head of the DGSI has become chief of France’s foreign intelligence agency.
Lerner, a 45-year-old civil servant, graduated from the elite graduate school ENA.
He has spent all his career within the interior ministry, essentially working on national security, becoming head of the DGSI in 2018.
He replaces Bernard Emie, a diplomat who had been French ambassador to Lebanon, Turkey, Britain, Algeria and Jordan before being appointed to head the DGSE in 2017.
Emie launched reforms within the DGSE and saw the agency’s budget increase.
But many have criticised the DGSE under him for failing to foresee the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine and a string of military coups in former French colonies Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
Lerner’s appointment as head of an agency of some 7,000 people comes at a time of war in Ukraine and Gaza and tensions between the West and Iran.
Lerner will also have to contend with France’s receding influence in West Africa after the military coups there.
And even with new concerns, the DGSE will have to keep up intelligence gathering abroad to prevent domestic incidents like the deadly 2015 and 2016 attacks in France claimed by the Islamic State jihadist group.
It will have to anticipate new dangers but “without creating any blind spots”, said French security analyst Alexandre Papaemmanuel.
Lerner will have to oversee the agency’s move to a space twice as big as the old offices portrayed in “The Bureau” to ones in Vincennes just outside Paris.
Fictional series “The Bureau” was a huge international hit for French producer Canal+, sold to more than 100 countries and praised even by the DGSE for its realism.