* Angelique Chrisafis in Paris
* guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 1 April 2009 17.59 BST
A senior executive of the French state energy giant EDF, which now owns the main UK nuclear power operator British Energy, has been charged on suspicion of spying on the environmental group Greenpeace.
The case has sparked outrage among anti-nuclear campaigners in France whose secret services were behind the bombing of the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior 24 years ago.
An EDF security executive, who previously worked as a police commander, is being investigated for conspiring to hack into Greenpeace France's computer system. Judges are investigating whether state-owned EDF, the world's biggest nuclear-reactor operator, hired a private detective agency run by a former member of the French secret services to illegally spy on environmentalists and infiltrate their ranks.
A computer expert at the agency, Kargus Consultants, has admitted hacking into the computer systems, but the head of the firm, who has also been charged, denies ordering the hacking, and says the computer expert went beyond orders, acting alone on his own initiative.
According to the French website Mediapart, which this week ran details of the investigation, EDF had a contract with Kargus to collect intelligence to prevent terrorist attacks and environmental activism and to infiltrate anti-nuclear campaigners.
The EDF executive has denied ordering the use of any illegal spying methods. Asked to confirm EDF's contract with Kargus, a spokeswoman for the company said only that Kargus "worked for EDF". The energy giant said it was a victim of the detective firm and has registered as a civil plaintiff in the case.
The investigation is centred on the 2006 hacking of a computer system used by Yannick Jadot, who was then Greenpeace campaigns director. EDF, which runs France's network of 58 electricity-producing nuclear reactors, has often been the target of Greenpeace campaigns. Greenpeace has speculated that the hacking incident could have been linked to their campaign to block EDF's construction of a vast, new generation nuclear reactor in Flamanville on the north coast.
In May 2006, the French government was outraged when Greenpeace and other campaigners published classified documents about the reactor.
Jadot, who left Greenpeace last year and is now running as Green candidate in the June European elections, told the Guardian: "I had no idea I was being spied on. That a state company could use an agency of ex-security service agents to spy on an environmental group is very shocking." He said he doubted that just one computer hacker was involved, acting alone.
Pascal Husting, director of Greenpeace France, said the case had echoes of "a dark era" in French history of countering anti-nuclear groups.
"Greenpeace is a non-violent environmental organisation. The fact that we are being treated like terrorists because we dare to question nuclear energy shows just how frightened the nuclear industry is of transparency and a democratic debate."
He added: "How will public opinion in Britain and the US - where EDF is expanding - react to a company using criminal spying methods against people who contradict them?"
The French environment minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, said he was "staying calm" and that EDF also considered itself a victim in the case. But he added: "It's clear that if by extraordinary chance this is true, what type of country are we living in?"
Greenpeace UK said it was conducting a full security review to check IT systems and phones and computers used by key staff. "This is obviously because a key part of EDF's business strategy is selling nuclear technology to the UK. The company has a very great interest in the UK nuclear debate."