PARIS — The French government on Wednesday reacted with carefully calibrated anger to revelations about extensive eavesdropping by the United States government on the private conversations of senior French officials — including three presidents.
The modulated reaction suggested that the surveillance, by the National Security Agency, was not a surprise and several French lawmakers and officials said as much, even noting that it was part of the diplomatic game.
In the immediate aftermath of news reports on the eavesdropping, which surfaced overnight Tuesday, President François Hollande called an emergency meeting of the Defense Council to discuss documents published by the French news website Mediapart, the left-leaning newspaper Libération and the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks, which obtained the documents.
Mr. Hollande spoke with President Obama on Wednesday afternoon and later said in a statement that he had received assurances that such intelligence gathering was no longer going on.
The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, also registered his dissatisfaction, calling in Jane D. Hartley, the United States ambassador to France, to protest the surveillance.
The first French government statement released Wednesday was spare but strongly worded, saying that the eavesdropping was “unacceptable” and that the government would not “tolerate any actions that put French security and the protection of French interests in danger.”
Yet subsequent statements took a milder tone. A statement from the Élysée Palace later spoke of intelligence officials traveling to Washington to “deepen cooperation” although earlier in the day, there had been talk of the officials going to verify that the surveillance had truly stopped.
The revelations come as France is debating legislation that would allow the mass collection of data, as well as more targeted eavesdropping, by its intelligence services.
The new information, gleaned from electronic surveillance data, focuses on French officials from 2006 to 2012. WikiLeaks did not say where it had obtained it. Julian Assange, a founder of WikiLeaks, is listed as one of the authors of the Mediapart and Libération articles.
Leaked N.S.A. documents have previously upended American diplomatic ties with a close ally. Relations between Washington and Berlin cooled significantly after reports in October 2013 accused the agency of monitoring one of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphones.
France has a long history of spying on both friends and foes, especially in the arena of industrial intelligence, although it draws the line — as most countries do — at spying on national leaders. Still, it seems less inclined to condemn the United States unequivocally for engaging in surveillance.
The Mediapart and Libération articles featured conversations involving three French presidents: Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and Mr. Hollande. The information that was released was largely predictable, although it was not the kind that anyone involved would want distributed to a wider audience.
Notes written by unnamed analysts about conversations in 2012 between Mr. Hollande and his prime minister at the time, Jean-Marc Ayrault, show that Mr. Hollande was already worried about the economic situation in Greece. Fearing that Ms. Merkel was too rigid in her approach, he reached out to the Social Democrats in Germany, who were in the opposition at the time.
Mr. Hollande is a member of the Socialist Party in France, but as a national leader he would be expected to deal with his counterpart rather than with an opposition party.
Mr. Sarkozy comes across in the documents as grandiose, expressing the view that he was the one who could “solve the world financial crisis,” according to one cable. Mr. Sarkozy is expected to be a candidate for the 2017 presidential elections.
The only cable that features Mr. Chirac suggests that his highly detailed instructions for his foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, were the product of worries that the minister was unreliable. The comment in the cable reads: “Chirac’s detailed orders may be in response to the foreign minister’s propensity, amply demonstrated in the past and the impetus behind a number of presidential reprimands, for making ill-timed or inaccurate remarks.”
Mr. Chirac could not be reached for comment.
The spying report intruded at a Washington news conference with Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday at the close of a meeting with senior Chinese officials. Mr. Kerry alluded to his own “terrific relationship" with Mr. Fabius, and, like Mr. Obama, insisted that no spying was going on now, even as he was silent about the past.
Mr. Kerry dismissed the published material as “an old WikiLeaks document.”
In a statement released early Wednesday, the National Security Council said, “We are not targeting and will not target the communications of President Hollande.”
“Indeed, as we have said previously, we do not conduct any foreign intelligence surveillance activities unless there is a specific and validated national security purpose. This applies to ordinary citizens and world leaders alike,” the statement said.
Mr. Sarkozy’s office said he would not comment.
Several of his former ministers and top aides denounced the practice, but Mr. Sarkozy’s former diplomatic counselor, Jean-David Levitte, said he was “not surprised” by the articles, adding that as ambassador to the United Nations, he always knew that someone was listening.
Although it was not clear what method the N.S.A. used to gather the data that was disclosed overnight Tuesday, most of the leaked cables have the word “unconventional” typed below the text, and one includes the notation “foreign satellite.” While WikiLeaks did not identify the source of the documents, they predated the spring of 2013, when the N.S.A. contractor Edward J. Snowden took an archive of intelligence documents to Hong Kong and gave them to several journalists. WikiLeaks has subsequently assisted him, although it has not been heavily involved in the publication of those documents.
Historically, with few exceptions, the N.S.A. has intercepted all foreign communications it could get access to if they were of conceivable intelligence interest. But the Snowden disclosures meant that for the first time, American officials had to balance the potential intelligence value of a target against the possible diplomatic fallout if the intercept was publicly revealed.
Matthew M. Aid, an intelligence historian and author of two books on national security, said WikiLeaks’ failure to say whether the new documents came from Mr. Snowden’s collection raised the possibility that a different insider was the source of the leak.
“If it’s a second leaker, it’s a nightmare for the agency,” he said. Since 2013, N.S.A. officials have spent millions of dollars to improve the agency’s internal security to prevent leaks and to detect and trace them if they occur.