Billionaire Dassault ends legal action against Mediapart over secretly-taped 'confession'


On Wednesday February 25th, lawyers representing the French billionaire and senator Serge Dassault announced they were withdrawing an appeal against a ruling that Mediapart had been justified in publishing details of secretly-made tape recordings involving the industrialist. In those recordings Dassault, who also owns a newspaper group, appears to confess to handing out large sums of cash to ensure his preferred candidate won an election. As Mediapart's editor-in-chief Edwy Plenel points out, not only is Dassault's decision to stop the appeal a victory for press freedom in France, the outcome also makes a mockery of the decision by another court to ban Mediapart from using any content from the tapes at the heart of the Bettencourt affair.

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The billionaire industrialist and senator Serge Dassault has withdrawn his appeal against a court judgement that backed Mediapart's decision to publish details of a secretly-recorded conversation involving him. In the recording, which provided the basis for a Mediapart story published in September 2013, Dassault appears to admit to paying out large sums of cash to secure victory for a favoured candidate at a local election in the town of Corbeil-Essonnes, south-west of Paris. The tape was made clandestinely by visitors who had gone to Dassault's office to complain that they had not received their share of the handouts.

After the publication of the story Dassault's lawyers took Mediapart to court, demanding that the contents of the tapes be censored on the ground that their publication was an invasion of his privacy. However, the industrialist, who is chairman and chief executive officer of defence and aerospace group the Dassault Group, did not bring an action for defamation contesting the facts of the revelations.

In October 2013 a Paris court threw out Dassault's attempt to censor the story and last Wednesday, February 25th, 2015, at 1.30pm the court of appeal in Paris was due to consider his appeal against that verdict. However, the senator's lawyers, Jean Veil and Pierre Haïk, informed the court that they were withdrawing the appeal lodged against the original judgement. This decision, for which Dassault and his lawyers are under no obligation to give reasons (see the copy of the motion to withdraw the appeal here), has two consequences.

The first consequence is that it means the ruling at first instance justifying Mediapart's publication of the story stands as a definitive judgement, completely vindicating the arguments of Mediapart's lawyers Jean-Pierre Mignard and Emmanuel Tordjman about the legitimacy of the news story. The second consequence is that it renders even more absurd legally the judicial censorship of which Mediapart was a victim over the publication of content from tapes in the Bettencourt affair. Mediapart is now taking that case to the European Court of Human Rights.

For the initial judgement in the Dassault case, which now stands unopposed, establishes a jurisprudence that is completely contrary to that invoked by France's top appeal court – the Court of Cassation – which found against Mediapart over the revelation of details in the Bettencourt tapes. In some ways the ruling in the Dassault case, made by the seventeenth criminal chamber of the Paris court, puts French justice back on the rails, bringing it in line with the liberal spirit of the 1881 press law. This judgement weighs the public interest of information against its potentially unlawful origins, and does not use the latter as a pretext to ignore the former to ride roughshod over the fundamental right to information.

Here is the full text of that October 2013 judgement (in French only) that dismissed all of Serge Dassault's demands and which today he no longer intends to oppose:

 It was on 15 September 15th, 2015, that Mediapart published the first part of an ongoing investigation into the Dassault 'system' of managing elections in the town of Corbeil-Essonnes. That article by Fabrice Arfi, Michaël Hajdenberg and Pascale Pascariello revealed three extracts from a conversation in November 2012 at the town hall in Corbeil between the senator – who is a member of the right-wing UMP party – and two other men. Those two men had come to see Dassault to complain that one of the key players in the 'Dassault System' had not shared out the 1.7 million euros he had been given. This money had been intended to ensure that in the 2010 elections the mayoral candidate supported by Dassault, Jean-Pierre Bechter, won the support and votes of working class areas in Corbeil. Dassault had himself been mayor of the town from 1995 to 2008.

In a second article one of the former protagonists in the 'system' explained how the meeting with Dassault was simply a pretext to try and obtain confirmation of the electoral corruption from the industrialist's own mouth and thus break down the wall of silence that surrounds the 'system'. Unaware that he was being recorded by a hidden camera, Dassault, who owns the national right-wing newspaper Le Figaro, made comments that leave no room for doubt, confirming his personal implication in the carrying out of unlawful acts and of his clear awareness of their illegal nature.

“There, I can't give any more,” says Serge Dassault on the tape. “I can no longer get anything out, it's banned...I'm being watched. I'm under surveillance by the police … The money has been handed out, all of it. Me, I gave the money. I can no longer give a penny to anybody. I can no longer get out money for anybody. There's no more Lebanon. There's no longer anyone over there, it's over. Me, I gave the money … If it's been badly distributed, that's not my fault,” he continues. “I'm not going to pay twice. Me, I've paid everything, so I'm not giving a penny more to anybody. If it's Younès [editor's note, the man who allegedly did not hand out the money as planned], sort it out with him. Me, I can't do anything.”

It is hardly necessary to underline the extent to which this scene raises questions about the morality of public life in France, involving as it does one of its central figures: the head of a press group and someone who has been a local and national elected representative since 1983 – in other words for nearly 32 years. Above all he is an industrialist supported by the public authorities and with taxpayers' money in a sector, armaments, in which many different affairs have show the extent to which he is at the heart of the corrupt practices that are concealed in the shadows of our Republic. In fact, during the judicial investigation that is under way into election corruption in Corbeil-Essonnes, Serge Dassault's accountant told investigators at the end of 2014 that he had handed over a total of 53 million euros in cash to the industrialist between 1995 and 2013, money transferred from banks based in Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and Switzerland.

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This article reuses some material originally published at the time of the court ruling in favour of Mediapart on the Dassault affair in October 2013.