Journalists from Mediapart, French daily Le Monde and weekly news magazine Le Point, all involved in in-depth investigations into the Bettencourt scandal, have been targeted by a series of mysterious break-ins and thefts during October.
Mediapart's editorial offices were broken into on the night of October 7th, when copies of the so-called 'butler tapes' were stolen from the desk of Mediapart's investigative journalists, Fabrice Arfi and Fabrice Lhomme, as well as a hard disk containing confidential files relating to the website's finances and shareholders, and other archives.
The 'butler tapes' are recordings of conversations between L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt and her senior financial and legal advisors, secretly taped within her home by her majordomo, Pascal Bonnefoy. Extracts were exclusively revealed by Mediapart in June, and disclosed evidence of tax evasion, money laundering and influence peddling and political interference in the justice system. They raised major questions over the proper conduct and conflicts of interest of labour minister Eric Woerth, and began what has become known as the Woerth-Bettencourt affair.
"What is quite disturbing is that they target journals, or journalists, at the forefront of investigations into the Bettencourt affair," commented Mediapart's Fabrice Lhomme, interviewed on French public radio station France Info. "One needs to ask what were the aims of these visitors, especially because we discovered things that had disappeared which are quite troubling [ ...] the two CD-ROMS were not clearly identified, the disks were just marked-up as one and two, so someone who was just passing through wouldn't have known what there was inside them. So, did they just take them by chance? Were they informed in advance? We can only ask questions and for the moment we have no answers."
On the night of October 21st, the editorial offices of Le Point were broken into and two computers were stolen, including a laptop computer belonging to the magazine's editor, Hervé Gattegno. Le Point, along with Mediapart, has been one of the most active French media organisations in investigating the Bettencourt affair. Gattegno's laptop had reportedly been secured with a chain lock that was found sectioned.
"It's true that this is very strange. Especially because it was the only one that needed to be cut off its cable, and the other one, well it's like it was to spoil the trail," said Le Point editorial director Franz-Olivier Giesbert, formerly editor of the daily Le Figaro, speaking on France Info. "So, obviously we ask ourselves questions. If you like, it reveals the morals of a banana republic which we've become accustomed to in this country, with all its agencies that run around in every direction. But serving who? I don't know, I can only imagine, but follow my eyes."
"But it's the sign, if you like, that there's something wrong that's been going on for decades in this country," continued Giesbert. "It was true under Mitterrand, it was true under Chirac, and we have the impression that it continues as if nothing's changed. There are people who are paid, by god know's who, who come along to work in the afternoon, or the night, and who steal computers and of course it serves no purpose because those who work on an investigation that's a bit difficult don't leave anything on their computer."
Also last Thursday, the home of Le Monde features editor Gérard Davet, who heads the paper's numerous investigations into the Bettencourt affair, was burgled and a laptop computer and GPS device were stolen. Nothing else was taken, despite the presence of what Davel described as "objects of value". Davet has already been targeted by official attempts to spy on his phone records, and which are now the subject of two lawsuits filed by the paper for breaches of the French law guaranteeing journalists the secrecy of their sources.
Mediapart, Gattegno and Davet have all lodged complaints with the police over the thefts this month.
Mediapart staff did not initially realise the extent of the October 7th overnight break-in at its offices in the Passage Brulon, in the 12th arrondissement of Paris. The last member of staff to leave the offices, at 10 p.m. last Thursday, had locked the entrance door by key.
There was no outward sign of a break-in when the theft was discovered at 8 a.m. on the morning of October 8th, after a lap top computer belonging to Mediapart's press and public communications manager, Yolande Laloum-Davidas, and another belonging to an intern with her service, were found to be missing. Police were informed the same day.
Her office sits beside the editorial desks of Arfi and Lhomme, who have led Mediapart's investigations into the Bettencourt affair from the start. They had not left any of their computers in the offices that night.
Mediapart chose not to publicly report what appeared a relatively minor theft with no obvious link to its journalistic activities. However, after the revelations this week of the break-ins at Le Point and the home of Gérard Davet, a more thorough search was conducted.
That was when Laloum-Davidas discovered the disappearance of the hard disk, kept in an office drawer, containing confidential details of the site's finances and shareholders, and all of the site's archives. During this second search, Mediapart discovered that also missing were the CD-ROM of copies of the secret recordings of Liliane Bettencourt's butler that were kept in a cabinet drawer under Arfi's desk.
Mediapart editor François Bonnet confirmed the site had further copies of the stolen CD-ROM, and said that he believed the real motive behind the theft may have been intimidation. In a commentary published Wednesday on the site, he wrote: "Of course we had taken every necessary measure to protect our sources and contacts. You'll allow me not to detail these further but concerning sensitive affairs we have a few habitual procedures that protect us from break-ins of this sort. Concerning that angle, the thefts that took place in our offices in no way interfere with the continuation of our investigations."
"But the aim of this type of operation is above all intimidation, not only towards journalists, but above all against their contacts who could become concerned that they are badly or not at all protected by the secrecy of sources," Bonnet continued. "Because the law that guarantees this secrecy can be violated, as shown by the phone surveillance of a journalist from Le Monde, we have opted for other systems of protection."
In an interview published in Le Monde before Mediapart revealed it had also been the target of a break-in, Gérard Davet was asked if he believed the theft of his computer and GPS from his central Paris home was connected to his work on the Woerth-Bettencourt case. "Since two months, I've been going from surprise to surprise," he said. "I have learnt that French counter-intelligence tried to discover my sources via my mobile phone. Next, I found out that the internal police investigations service [inspection générale des services] had also tried to find out, still via my mobile phone, if I met with judge Isabelle Prévost-Deprez."
Isabelle Prévost-Deprez is in charge of investigating the lawsuit filed by Liliane Bettencourt's daughter Françoise against socialite and celebrity photographer François-Marie Banier for allegedly abusing the mental frailty of the 88 year-old L'Oréal matriarch into handing him almost one billion euros in gifts.
"So, I don't rule anything out of this burglary," added Davet, "which could also quite well be the work of a prowler. There will be no question of slipping into paranoia or feeding a climate of fantasies."
On October 20th, the day before the thefts targeting Le Point and Davet, Liliane Bettencourt's lawyer Georges Kiejman publicly accused Prévost-Deprez of leaking information to Davet, his Le Monde colleague Jacques Follorou, to Le Point's Hervé Gattegno and to Mediapart journalists.
A number of questions are raised by the coincidence of the three break-ins this month, especially given the recent discovery of the phone surveillance of Le Monde journalists. Together, the events could well serve to dissuade potential press informants to come forward with information about highly sensitive affairs. In an article published Wednesday in the daily Libération, lawyer and media law specialist Christophe Bigot, commenting on the recent incidents of phone surveillance discovered by Le Monde's journalists, underlined the dangers of such intimidation. "One thing must be well understood, that without secrecy of sources there is no source," he said. "And no sources, no information."
Mediapart has re-published a selection of extracts from the secret Bettencourt 'butler tapes', totalling some 40 minutes, on its home page Wednesday.
English version: Graham Tearse