In November 2010, Mediapart exposed how it was the target of a police espionage operation mounted on the orders of the French presidency. President Nicolas Sarkozy’s then-chief-of-staff Claude Guéant, the current interior minister, responded by announcing he was suing Mediapart for libel. But Guéant suddenly dropped his lawsuit in June last year, fearful of the disclosures that would emerge during the trial, which had been due in the autumn. A book published this week in France, L’Espion du Président (‘The President’s Spy’), contains new revelations about the scope of the surveillance of Mediapart and other French media. Here, in an outline of pertinent extracts, Mediapart Editor-in-Chief Edwy Plenel explains why Mediapart has decided to take legal action to prompt an independent judicial investigation into the latest shocking disclosures.
Mediapart was well aware that in 2010 it became the target of a police espionage operation which was ordered by the French presidency. In November that year, we published an article denouncing “the scandalous intimidation of the French media”, which prompted the then-secretary-general (chief-of-staff) of the French presidency, Claude Guéant, now interior minister, to sue Mediapart for libel. Suddenly, on June 30th 2011, Guéant abandoned his legal action, fearful of the trial which had been set for the autumn (see our previous article on this here).
The authors - Olivia Recasens and Christophe Labbé from French news weekly Le Point, and Didier Hassoux, from investigative weekly Le Canard enchaîné – focus their book on the actions of Bernard Squarcini, head of the Direction centrale du renseignement intérieur (DCRI), the French domestic intelligence services.
The meticulous investigation by the three journalists illustrates how the French police authorities executed missions, those of a shady political police force, on behalf of the French presidency. They did so under the orders of Squarcini, a man totally devoted to President Nicolas Sarkozy, and by using the cover of a supposed threat to national defence secrets, a tactic which gave them a complete licence of unaccountability.
The revelations contained in the book are precise, factual and are backed up by a number of named sources. These notably include an on-the-record account given by Joël Bouchité, a former head of the now-disbanded Renseignements généraux (RG), the French national police force’s intelligence service. The RG was merged with the former state domestic intelligence service, the Direction de la surveillance du territoire (DST), in 2008, creating the DCRI now led by Squarcini.
Importantly, Bouchité, who is currently the prefect of the northern Orne département (or county), was, until July 2011, a security advisor for the French presidential office, the Elysée Palace. In an interview for the book, conducted on August 16th 2011, he gave a detailed account of what he described as “perfectly illegal methods” used under Squarcini to spy on French media editorial teams. He criticized Squarcini for having “anchored in popular imagination [the idea] that the DCRI was a political police [service]”.
The book recounts how, in the summer of 2010, the French presidency was rattled by Mediapart’s revelations in its coverage of the L’Oréal-Bettencourt affair; in June that year, we had begun publishing the contents of secretly-recorded conversation between L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt and her close financial and legal advisors. The tapes, recorded by Bettencourt’s butler, exposed a series of damning discussions concerning tax evasion, high-level conflicts of interest, improper tampering with judicial procedures and the suggestion of illegal political funding. Mediapart published only those extracts – from conversations held over a period of one year – that were clearly of public interest.
In L’Espion du Président, the authors recount: “At the beginning of July 2010, Claude Guéant, the Elysée secretary-general [chief-of-staff], organized a crisis meeting at the rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré [site of the presidential offices] to counter-attack the revelations published by Mediapart concerning the Bettencourt affair. The online journal led by Edwy Plenel, former editorial head of Le Monde, had a few weeks earlier published the secret recordings that implicated Eric Woerth, the Minister of the Budget and treasurer of the [ruling] UMP [party]. The Elysée was supposedly in possession of a document from the Direction centrale du renseignement intérieur. The information disclosed was precise: the majority shareholder of Mediapart is a Belgian tax evader who owns a restaurant in Paris’ 6th arrondissement.”
At Mediapart, we had already alluded to this smear campaign in our public call to account of President Sarkozy for the espionage operation targeting us. We had discovered that the attempt to slur our shareholders had been bandied around a certain number of editorial teams among the French media, who naturally took the matter no further because it was completely false. Mediapart’s majority shareholder is a grouping of our website’s founding journalists and employees. To the best of our knowledge, none among us is a Belgian tax dodger nor a Parisian restaurant proprietor.
We now know that this calumny came from the DCRI, which was involved, on the demand of the French presidency, in ferreting around everything to do with Mediapart, its journalists and shareholders,
The authors of L’Espion du Président also cite a police officer belonging to the DCRI, who they interviewed on July 30th 2011, and who is identified only by his first name. “David is categorical,” they write. “It is the third time that we are meeting with this DCRI officer. Before beginning to speak to us, he took the precaution of making sure that our mobile phones were switched off. ‘The company [DCRI] did indeed ask, in 2010, a job on Mediapart and Plenel because they were annoying the Château [Elysée],’ he confirmed. ‘The request came from High Command. Some refused, but we knew internally that others did it.’Perhaps it was this dossier, which is a seven-page document about the online journal’s finances, that Claude Guéant had in his hands in July 2010.”