French billionaire claims he spied on ex-president for security agency

Kim Willsher
Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

A French billionaire has said he spied on a former president and on the car giant Renault for the country’s security agency.

Xavier Niel, a co-owner of Le Monde newspaper, claimed that as a teenager in the 1980s he worked for the state internal security services when they were interested in hacking, which was then a relatively new technique.

Niel, 52, a telecommunications tycoon, told a parliamentary TV channel that he hacked a number of mobile phones including that of the then president, François Mitterrand.

“In 1986, I was in the newspapers for having hacked into the data of mobile phones in France, including that of President Mitterrand,” he said.

Niel also admitted targeting Robert Pandraud, who was a junior minister for security under President Jacques Chirac.

“I was not in the secret services. I was – I don’t know what you’d call it – a sort of honorary agent,” Niel said.

He admitted he “flirted with illegality” during his youth. When he was 17, having dropped out of school, he was interviewed by police after hacking the decoders of the pay TV network Canal+ in order to sell the codes.

“They said: ‘That’s great, the pirating isn’t so serious, but you’re doing something interesting,’” he claimed. “They said we youngsters were getting into computer sites with sensitive data and they proposed that we get a group of young people and go ahead and help them understand it better.

“We were doing it for ourselves as a laugh and we would pass on the information.”

Niel, who stormed France’s closed network of telephone and internet providers when he set up the group Iliad Free, is worth around €8bn and listed as France’s 21st richest person. His partner is Delphine Arnaud, the daughter of Bernard Arnault, the president of the luxury group LVMH and France’s richest man.

Niel first made his name offering adult services on Minitel, the internet precursor in France. In 1997 Niel sold most of his pornography interests but kept a peepshow in Strasbourg and one in Paris.

In 2004 he was arrested for allegedly profiting from prostitution and for tax evasion. He was found not guilty of the former and fined €250,000 and given a suspended two-year sentence for the latter.

Niel and partners acquired Le Monde in 2010.