The scandalous intimidation of the French media

Following disturbing recent incidents of espionage, break-ins and intimidation targeting the French press, and notably this website, editor-in-chief Edwy Plenel reveals here what Mediapart has discovered about official attempts aimed at destabilising journalists involved in investigations, notably the Bettencourt affair, that have embarassed President Nicolas Sarkozy. Some of the accounts beggar belief. He calls here for politicians and institutions to stand up an be counted for in defending the essential right that is the freedom of information.

This article is freely available.

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By Edwy Plenel, Editor-in-Chief of Mediapart

Nicolas Sarkozy has been president of France since 2007. As such, he is supposed to ensure the respect of the French constitution, which recognises the freedom of information as one of the most precious rights of the country's citizens. But for several months now, those whose profession is to provide information in the country that he governs are the victims of thoroughly reprehensible practices; they have been verbally threatened, their phones put under surveillance, and their homes and offices burgled.

To say the least, the Bettencourt scandal has shaken the Elysée Palace. But, during a press conference in Brussels after the European Council meeting on October 29th, when he was questioned about the break-ins targeting journalists from Mediapart, French daily Le Monde and weekly magazine Le Point, all of whom have been involved in far-reaching investigations into the Bettencourt affair, Nicolas Sarkozy could only reply: "I don't see how that concerns me."

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© Reuters

Situated somewhere between a denial and an admission, his answer was stupefying. The denial resided in the negation of a reality by the very person it should most concern. The admission is in the answer in the use of "I" - when the question was put to the man who is the country's highest elected representative, and supposed to represent the whole nation. In all logic, one would have expected a short and sharp answer, however insincere. An answer was expected along the lines that freedom of the press 'is essential', that such acts are 'to be condemned', that the truth 'must be found', and so on. Instead of which, the president intimated that a possible attack against the freedom of the press didn't concern him, even repeating this twice: "I don't see how that concerns me. You're expecting from me a comment about an investigation. I don't see how it concerns the head of state," he said.

At Mediapart, on the contrary, we feel very concerned, as citizens as much as journalists, these two identities being indivisible because our profession has no other legitimacy than that of the right to free, independent and pluralist information. In other terms, it is our entire democracy that is eminently concerned by events reported over the past few weeks and which was the subject of an article in the Canard Enchaîné, in its edition dated November 3rd. The satirical and investigative weekly claimed that Nicolas Sarkozy himself&nbspsupervises the espionage of journalists."

But quoting from unattributable sources does not, of course, provide absolute proof -  which is precisely why we at Mediapart have until now remained prudent and discrete on the subject, only denouncing what we have proof of, or what we are certain of.

But today the fact is that these allegations, from sources at the heart of power, are too insistent and the events they refer to are so concordant that we can no longer remain silent behind a wall of professional caution. Thus, Mediapart has now decided to publish here what we have discovered so far from our enquiries, gleaned from within the small world of intelligence agencies and from various ministerial sources.

First of all, we have been told that over the past several months our website has been the object of an all-out surveillance campaign. Fabrice Arfi and Fabrice Lhomme, our investigative journalists specialised in enquiries that have centred upon sensitive issues for the presidency, notably the Karachi and Bettencourt affairs, have apparently been the target, since March or April, of phone tapping aimed at establishing a list of their contacts and relations. 

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This period coincides with the moment when they were in the process of finishing their book on the Karachi affair, Le Contrat - Karachi, l'affaire que Sarkozy voudrait oublier1, and were notably involved in meeting Elysée Palace General Secretary Claude Guéant and interior minister Brice Hortefeux.

At the beginning of their book, they recount a number of events that testified to a more-than-tense atmosphere surrounding their investigation. They told how Magalie Drouet, the spokesperson for the relatives of victims of the Karachi bomb attack, was the object of physical surveillance during a meeting in Paris with our journalists - who themselves observed two individuals involved in surveillance of their vehicle during a meeting with lawyers.

Our sources have told us that Fabrice Arfi and Fabrice Lhomme, and possibly other members of our editorial team, were subject to the same secret surveillance as Le Monde feature editor Gérard Davet and Judge Isabelle Prévost-Desprez, whose mobile phone records were studied by the French internal intelligence agency, the Direction centrale du renseignement intérieur (DCRI).

In the case of Davet and Prévost-Desprez, judicial pretexts were put forward as the reason for violating the legal guarantee given to journalists for the protection of the secrecy of their sources. Because this operation was made public, it was clear that the final aim was to intimidate potential future sources from coming forward.

But the espionage operation that the Mediapart journalists were reportedly subjected to was given neither the same justification, nor was it rendered public, having failed to identify any sensitive sources. In any case, the motive of 'secrecy of defence' that was curiously advanced by the DCRI as a reason for not supplying the Paris public prosecutor with further explanations of why the journalist from Le Monde was spied upon illustrates very well how, in this affair, intelligence officers have more secrets to hide than any amount of good faith to prove.


1: Mediapart's Fabrice Arfi and Fabrice Lhomme have compiled their extensive and revealing investigations about the Karachi affair in a book entitled 'Le Contrat - Karachi, l'affaire que Sarkozy voudrait oublier', ('The contract - Karachi, the affair Sarkozy would like to forget'), currently available in French only, published in May 2010, by Stock.

Abuse of power undermines the values of the law

According to other sources, the Elysée Palace also showed a close interest in our non-staff minority shareholders, spreading information to some media organisations that one of these shareholders had been in trouble with the tax authorities. Equally, the private finances of certain members of the Mediapart team were reportedly the subject of police scrutiny that had no legal justification.

Above all, we have been told that this state-organised inquisition was and is instigated and coordinated by Elysée Palace Secretary General, Claude Guéant, himself. "They've gone wild", confided a high-ranking government minister to one of his close entourage, who in turn informed us of the phrase he used. This source has assured us that the minister knew, as of September, that those media organisations at the forefront of reporting on the Bettencourt scandal were to be the subject of clandestine operations, explicitly citing Mediapart, Le Point and Le Monde. It is these same three titles that were the target in October of break-ins or theft.

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Nicolas Sarkozy with Claude Guéant. © Reuters

Our same sources tell us that - on top of the orders given by the Elysée to the DCRI, whose director, Bernard Squarcini, enjoys close relations with Nicolas Sarkozy, as does also his hierarchical superior, the director-general of the national police force (DGPN), Frédéric Péchenard –- the president's office has also used the services of a large private security company founded and run by former members of state security organisations, including the DGSE (foreign intelligence), DST (former interior intelligence agency) and the Renseignements Géneraux (RG), a parallel interior intelligence network.

These same sources have spoken of the presence in Guéant's entourage of a retired police officer known, above all, for his activities concerning African affairs. His services, we are told, were called upon during the summer, in a climate of panic at the Elysée following our revelations about the Bettencourt scandal. Mediapart has now contacted the retired officer concerned, who denied any such involvement, telling us that he was "retired from business".

It is no real surprise that Claude Guéant is cited as being the instigator. Our colleagues at Le Point reported in July how the meeting in which the counter-attack on Mediapart was organised was held in the office of the Elyséé Palace Secretary General. One of those who took part, a current government minister known for his loyalty to the head of state, is said to have compared me, Edwy Plenel, with Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister. It was also reported that, during this meeting, the refrain denouncing the "fascist methods of Mediapart" - subsequently repeated in a public media chorus by the president's close guard –- was invented. 

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What we have been told in confidence now shows that this climate of verbal violence was not a vain threat. On July 7th, 2010, Nicolas Sarkozy hosted a meeting at the Elysée Palace with members of parliament from the Nouveau Centre [New Centre] party. Speaking about the revelations contained in the Bettencourt butler tapes, revealed by Mediapart, he used an odd phrase when referring to me; "But it's going to come back in his face," he told them.

For the time being, it is the face of our Republic, its laws and its principles, that it has come back to hit, in the form of a pile of ashes. Everything that we have learned about is not only illegal, but is totally illegitimate. "Worse than a crime, a fault," was the famous phrase used by Joseph Fouché, Minister of Police under Napoleon Bonaparte (referring to the execution of the Duke of Enghien). It sums up very well what is endangered by the abuse of power; the law, of course, but above all the very things upon which the law is founded upon and inspired by.

Our institutions, at every level, are in the hands of men and women who, each in their own post, are the guardians of those same institutions. If they do not know when to say "No!" to illegal orders, if they do not know when to identify the moment that private interests are disguised as reasons of state, it is their own legitimacy that they lead to ruin - amid the broad collapse and destruction of the ideals of the Republic.

Events have already crossed a danger line

Contacted Wednesday November 3rd by Mediapart, the head of the DCRI, Bernard Squarcini, naturally denied being involved in any devious operations. He said that he had no dark group working within his midst, he denied the reports published this Wednesday by the Canard Enchaîné, and insisted he was not involved in spying upon journalists –- whom he said he respected –- and offered us a meeting so that he could explain and justify himself.

But no verbal denial can now suffice, given the degree to which he has already been discredited by so many things demonstrated and proven.

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Denial: Bernard Squarcini. © Reuters

Being but simple journalists, we do not have at our disposal the same means as those of the state and its services, the judiciary and the police, in order to formally establish the truth of what has been told to us by reliable sources which, for reasons of prudence, have to remain anonymous. But haven't things already gone far enough?

What more is needed beyond these repeated and concordant accounts from such well-informed sources, after the wild verbal attacks launched by officials against Mediapart, after the inadmissible police intrusion on private phone records, or after the gross intimidation that was the series of break-ins and thefts against journalists involved in investigating the Bettencourt affair?

Indeed, just what more is needed before the representatives of the French Republic, its elected politicians and its authorities, become alarmed by the situation?  This is not a case of over-zealous behaviour by some individual and unhinged state agency, acting outside of official sanction of the state, its hierarchy or police services. According to our sources, some of whom belong to the president's political camp, we are faced here with a far greater demonstration of corruption, an abuse that is instigated and encouraged by the presidential office itself. It imposes its self-interested and partisan obsessions upon its servitors, upon its police and its magistrates.

No French political persuasion, neither the Left in opposition nor the ruling Right (which is bound in the future to return to the opposition), can accept the abandonment of such an essential freedom as that of the press - this would otherwise be a renunciation of democracy itself. To do nothing about what we have been told, and about what the Canard Enchaîné has reported, is tantamount to a crime of non-assistance, the failure to come forward to help a freedom placed in danger.

Which is why we solemnly call upon members of parliament to take up the issue, to question the government about them, and to lead the independent investigations that are within their power. Just as we also call upon the officials and civil servants in ministries, administrations and other services concerned by these events –- events that are contrary to their guiding principles - to use the only legitimate recourse they have when the state runs out of control at its highest level; to alert and provide information to the independent press.

Because of the fact that the fate of the freedom of information is apparently not something that concerns the French president, it is for every citizen, over and above their differences and allegiances, to protect it. And this for the one and simple reason that this freedom is a right that belongs to them.

  • Edwy Plenel is Editor-in-Chief of Mediapart, and is one of the site's co-founders. He was formerly editor of French daily Le Monde.


English version: Graham Tearse

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