The Bettencourt affair censored by the court of Versailles

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The court of appeal at Versailles has ordered Mediapart to remove all quotes from the recordings whose publication transformed the Bettencourt affair into a major public scandal. Three years after Mediapart first revealed the content of these tapes, this decision is more than just an attack on the freedom of information, says editor-in-chief Edwy Plenel: it is an act of censorship.

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So, three judges are after Mediapart's demise. They are called Marie-Gabrielle Magueur, who is the president, Annie Vaissette and Dominique Ponsot, and they sit at Versailles in the first chamber of the court of appeal. In a grotesque decision, as absurd factually as inconsistent legally, they have ordered us to remove from the entire site every extract from the recordings made by the family butler that are at the origin of the Bettencourt affair, and banned us from publishing them in the future. All this to be done in eight days following the official notification of the judgement and, once this deadline has passed, upon pain of receiving fines of 10,000 euro per day, per infringement.

Because of the 894 articles our newspaper has devoted to the Bettencourt affair since June 2010 and the 1,615 Club blogs where our subscribers have commented on them, without counting the numerous videos talking about or quoting the recordings, the scale of potential fines rapidly adds up to hundreds of thousands of euros and, if we are stubborn, millions. With your, the readers, support we have barely ten days to try to prevent a black shroud bearing the word “CENSORED” stopping anyone reading all our articles and all your blog entries on the Bettencourt affair. For while we are obviously going to appeal against this iniquitous judgement, the decision is enforceable immediately.

So you have just over a week to know and learn everything contained on Mediapart (see here for key details and a link to more stories) about an affair that is a monument to the oligarchical practices that are ruining our Republic, while sharing them so that no one in this digital age need be unaware of it. And, one never knows – because it is, practically, the only solution – just over a week for your massive protests to make Liliane Bettencourt, her family, her legal guardian and her lawyers understand that they should abandon enforcing this decision which punishes the very people who, by their revelations, removed Madame Bettencourt from the hands of those who abused her state of weakness.

For this is one of the countless absurdities of a saga that has not been short of them: that it is at Liliane Bettencourt's request that this judgement has been given, joined in the action on this occasion by her former wealth manager Patrice de Maistre. So this is the curious way in which Mediapart is rewarded by the entourage of France's third wealthiest family for its disinterested action in the service of not only the truth but also the protection of an elderly person, the victim of activities which are at the centre of the judicial investigation based in Bordeaux, and whose protagonists have, all of them, since been forced to leave the billionaire's service.

The Bettencourt affair has continually highlighted to us the existence of two justice systems in France. One which accepts the truth, the other which censors it. One which cares about the public interest, the other that looks after the powerful. One which respects whistleblowers, the other which knows only the closed world of insiders. It was on the very day that, at Bordeaux, the former minister and treasurer of the right-wing UMP party Éric Woerth and Patrice de Maistre were sent for trial for “influence peddling”, that Mediapart learnt at Versailles that it must remove all the information that revealed the facts behind this case to the whole of France, facts which were subsequently taken up by the judicial system.

They were not revealed without some difficulty, as this battle for justice at the very heart of the justice system was first fought out at Nanterre, west of Paris, with a prosecutor who laboured for four months to bury the truth. Just as is happening in Bordeaux today with the endless attempts to destabilise and remove the three examining magistrates (Jean-Michel Gentil, Cécile Ramonatxo and Valérie Noël) at the initiative of various protagonists – among them the former president Nicolas Sarkozy, no less – about whom our stories have revealed the self-interested arrangements, interlinked businesses and the disregard they show for the law, including tax laws.

And yet, faced with an absurd decision, coming as it did from the judicial system, must we remove all mention, quote, review and so on of the facts that caused the Bettencourt earthquake three years after their revelation? The same facts that the justice system has picked up and which will, one day soon, be argued out in front of a court? These same secret recordings which have, for a long time, been accepted as material evidence of the offences they deal with following a judgement of January 31st, 2012, by the appeal court the Cour de cassation? Of this audio proof of the state of Madame Bettencourt's weakness and, as a result, of the abuses this could have led to around her?

Recall the storm that broke in the summer of 2010. Without Mediapart's revelations, based precisely on this evidence, there would not have been a committee set up to examine conflicts of interest in public life whose report, which sadly did not have any immediate impact, opened the debate that Parliament has now taken up following another scandal broken by Mediapart, the Cahuzac affair. Nor, without the publicity given by our investigation to this fraud, would tens of millions of euros been handed over to state coffers after the tax adjustment that targeted Madame Bettencourt's offshore assets. Without our series of revelations there would not have been the start of a debate, one that is now national, on the scale of tax evasion and its links with unlawful political funding.

Terrible times for whistleblowers

The court of appeal at Versailles does not care at all about these issues. It is content, without taking the trouble to back it up with well-reasoned arguments, to object to the supposed violation of the private lives of Madame Bettencourt and Monsieur de Maistre that we, in turn, have committed while revealing the facts discovered by the billionaire’s butler Pascal Bonnefoy. Yet the butler did not act as an eavesdropper but out of a sense of justice: he wanted to reveal the little schemes and intrigues that his boss was the object of, even at the risk of resorting to the criminal method of a secret recording. In fact the medical expert opinion ordered by the judges at Bordeaux – the very one that Messieurs Sarkozy, Woerth, de Maitre and others want to get annulled – showed he was absolutely right, confirming that the billionaire was not mistress of her own decisions.

But above all the (perfunctory) reasoning runs roughshod over press rights, the fundamental right to freedom of information, in short, over the citizens' right to know. The European Court of Human Rights, which is where we will take this case if by chance all other avenues are exhausted, has established precedent in giving precedence to the legitimacy of information in the public interest, that's to say information in the interest of the public and democracy, over the potentially illicit or underhand means that enabled it to be established. This is obviously on condition that there is respect for this lofty ambition in the method of producing this information.

That is precisely what Mediapart has been careful to do right throughout the Bettencourt affair, excluding around 20 hours of the butler's recordings to keep just over a hour's worth of extracts, all those excerpts that reveal information that is in the public interest, as we have made clear in all our articles.

The first judges who, in July 2010, dealt with the legal action launched by Madame Bettencourt and Monsieur de Maistre understood, and ruled in our favour at first instance, then again on appeal. It was these judgements that were later overturned by the civil division of the Cour de cassation which, setting up the privacy of one's private life as an absolute principle, independent of all context, of the complexity of public life and the conflicts within a democracy, knowingly ignored those press rights of which the criminal division of the same court is the usual guardian. Sent back back to the court of appeal in Versailles, we hoped that justice would return to its natural stance, that of supporting the right to know, a concept that the Cour de cassation was not slow in praising in its 2010 annual report.

In fact, quite the opposite happened, with a grotesque decision that did not even take the trouble to really discuss the legal arguments of our lawyers Jean-Pierre Mignard and Emmanuel Tordjman. How daring Mediapart must have been that, three years after the facts, they seek to punish it at any cost, even at the risk of being ridiculed! Daring to have reported, without wavering, truths that are inconvenient for the secret and obscure business affairs of a little world of self-interest, of financiers, politicians, lawyers, politicians, in short sycophants and profiteers.

So what is this insistent conspiracy that wants the demise of whistleblowers even when anyone could see the public interest behind its alerts, in this case our reports? A conspiracy that, mysteriously, has survived the consequences of our revelations about Liliane Bettencourt's entourage? For is it really the billionaire who has been pursuing us in the courts since 2010? Did not the medical examination ordered by the judges confirm the fears of daughter Françoise about her mother's health? Was it not established that Liliane Bettencourt had not been totally lucid for some years and that, in consequence, there was no guarantee that she was clearly informed and aware of the legal actions taken in her name against us? And have the lawyers representing her not stopped changing, a procession not unconnected with the facts revealed in the butler's tapes?

Trusting in principle in our country's justice system, we were put on our guard by our lawyers in a letter they wrote on April 23rd, 2013 to the judge in charge of legal guardians at the Service de la protection des majeurs – which deals with adults no longer deemed capable of making decisions on their own behalf – Stéphanie Kass-Danno. To this day we have not had any reply, not even an acknowledgement that it has been received. The lawyers Mignard and Tordjman wrote: “To claim to defend the private life of Madame Bettencourt by silencing the criminal process of which she was a victim speaks of a gross hypocrisy that it is impossible for us to keep silent about and to which we intend to give the greatest publicity...Her behaviour was invalidated in part because of her illness and in part because of all that her entourage strived to do to erect a smokescreen so that her condition was not revealed...The recording could certainly have caused damage but this was to avoid a much greater damage.”

It is a terrible time for whistleblowers. At a time when, half-heartedly and in the context of the planned law on transparency in public life, the National Assembly is recognising there is a place for whistleblowers, three judges at Versailles want to cut their heads off. How can one not compare this grotesque turn of events in our case to the much more tragic case of Edward Snowden? He is the whistleblower to whom we owe the confirmation of the scorn of states, and above all of the most powerful of them, the United States, for the private lives of citizens of the world. It's on a different scale but the battles are nonetheless similar.

At stake is nothing less than the truth, for which we need a press that is free, independent and demanding. It was also in Versailles that the French writer Émile Zola was convicted in July 1898 for writing his famous “J'accuse...!” article during the Dreyfus affair, an article that honours the history of journalism. It earned the writer a year-and-a-half jail term, which led him to flee into exile. When he returned to France a year later, his attack on the crime committed against the innocent Captain Dreyfus having become an evident truth, he refused to be triumphant, but instead asked the justice system to “simply say if there is a crime in wanting the truth”.

In the Bettencourt affair, that is Mediapart's only crime: to have wanted the truth, without which there is no justice.

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English version by Michael Streeter

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