‘Dark days’ for French journos

It was the perfect story: a mix of glitz, hairspray and celebrity family-feuding that turned into a political scandal that threatened to engulf the highest reaches of the French state.

But France’s “Bettencourt affair” has taken a new turn, with editors accusing French President Nicolas Sarkozy of ordering the intelligence services to illegally spy on journalists and root out their sources.

  • Russian reporters under attack
  • Reporters complain of phone-tapping, surveillance and the mysterious theft of laptops in a climate of intimidation some liken to the worst of the Cold War.

    At first, l’affaire Bettencourt was simple: flamboyant Liliane Bettencourt, France’s richest woman and heiress to the L’Oréal cosmetics empire, bequeathed vast sums to a charming celebrity photographer. Her daughter sued, saying her mother was not of sound mind and had been taken advantage of.

    Then secret tapes recorded by Bettencourt’s butler, followed by leaks and accounts from former Bettencourt staff, raised allegations of potential tax evasion, influence-peddling and illegal donations to the president’s centre-right UMP party.

    Former budget minister Eric Woerth, campaign fundraiser for Sarkozy, denied wrongdoing and refused to resign. A series of judicial investigations has gripped the public and dented Sarkozy’s popularity.

    But recently editors have risen up in an unprecedented revolt against what they allege is a dirty tricks campaign sanctioned by the Elysée Palace [the official residence of the French president] in which intelligence agents have illegally phone-tapped reporters, hunted down sources, physically followed journalists, procured private phone records and singled out secret sources at Sarkozy’s request.

    The president and his entourage
    Claude Angeli, editor of the satirical paper, le Canard Enchaîné, said Sarkozy had personally overseen the creation of a special cell within the Division Centrale du Renseignement Interieur (DCRI) — the French secret service — to use counterintelligence techniques to track journalists whenever they offended the president or his entourage, citing the Woerth-Bettencourt affair as an example.

    Edwy Plenel, editor of the investigative website Mediapart, which broke the Bettencourt butler tapes story, declared that journalists working on Bettencourt and another political scandal had been subject to an “all-out surveillance campaign” including “phone-tapping aimed at establishing a list of their contacts and relations”.

    He said two journalists’ cars had been followed, information was spread that a minority shareholder in the site “had been in trouble with the tax authorities” and “the private finances of certain members of the Mediapart team were reportedly the subject of police scrutiny that had no legal justification”.

    Three journalists working on the Bettencourt case have been the target of mysterious break-ins.

    Gerard Davet, the investigations editor of Le Monde, had his home computer and a GPS system stolen from his flat in Paris’s 11th arrondissement, while Herve Gattegno, an investigative journalist working on the Bettencourt saga for the news weekly, Le Point, had his laptop stolen from his office.

    Two weeks earlier CD-Roms containing the Bettencourt “butler tapes” were stolen from Mediapart’s offices, with two laptops and a hard drive. Police are investigating.

    Earlier, Le Monde sued for violation of the new French law protecting sources. The paper alleged in September that state spies used illegal surveillance to identify an adviser in the justice ministry as the suspected source of a leak for one of their Woerth-Bettencourt stories. He was then demoted and posted to French Guyana.

    Admitting and denying
    Last month the paper filed another lawsuit alleging that a state prosecutor sanctioned illegally obtaining journalists’ personal phone records. The DCRI admitted that it investigated the Le Monde leak, but the Elysée denied instructing it to do so.

    “These are dark, dark days,” said Dominique Pradalie, secretary general of France’s biggest journalists’ union, the Syndicat National des Journalistes. “I can’t think of anything to compare it to, except perhaps Russia.”

    France has a history of illegal phone-tapping of journalists. Under François Mitterrand, journalists, actors and others came under surveillance with the aim of stopping details of the president’s private life and his secret child emerging.

    Many are questioning Sarkozy’s personal links with key television stations and newspapers owned by his businessmen friends. Unions allege state interference in the appointment of journalists and broadcasters, who self-censor copy to keep the Elysée happy. Political journalists who don’t follow a “tacit agreement” on what they can and can’t report find themselves frozen out of Sarkozy’s circles or, at worst, sacked, said one reporter.

    At Le Monde the mood is defiant. “What’s new in the Woerth-Bettencourt case is that the surveillance of journalists seems to be happening with complete impunity,” Davet said.

    “The Elysée ordered an investigation by the DCRI, who then calmly obtained a list of every call made and received by my source and myself, without even trying to hide it.” The seasoned investigative journalist said some of his sources were now fearful and reluctant to talk.

    At Mediapart staff said they would not succumb to paranoia, “the enemy of all journalism”. Fabrice Arfi, one of the reporters allegedly under surveillance, said: “If a link is proved between the three burglaries of journalists’ homes, it could be seen as intimidation of current or potential sources. The message is: ‘We can find out who you are.’ “That’s very serious in terms of democracy.”

    After Mediapart broke the butler tapes story in June, a secret crisis meeting was reportedly held at the Elysée in which one minister compared Plenel, a former editor of Le Monde, with Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief. Government voices subsequently alluded to the “fascism” of the site.

    In a France still coming to terms with its history of Nazi collaboration, this was a serious slur.

    Mediapart is suing Xavier Bertrand, secretary general of Sarkozy’s UMP party, for defamation.

    The government has flatly denied all allegations of state interference or surveillance of journalists. Brice Hortefeux, the French interior minister and Sarkozy’s oldest friend, declared that the French secret service was not enlisted “to go after journalists” and was “not the Stasi or the KGB”.

    Asked at a press conference about the theft of journalists’ computers, Sarkozy replied: “I don’t see how that concerns me.” Some in the French media felt it was an uncharacteristically curt reply from a president who usually never misses the chance to denounce crime. —

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