The President vs. the Press Sarkozy Draws Ire Over Media Spying Claims

French President Nicolas Sarkozy allegedly ordered France's domestic intelligence agency to spy on journalists who annoyed him. The opposition is now demanding an investigation. Is French democracy in jeopardy?

By

AP

Edwy Plenel has been a journalist for over 30 years. He was editor-in-chief of Le Monde , France's leading daily, he uncovered many scandals during the presidency of François Mitterrand, and he was spied on by the Elysée Palace in the 1980s, but it was always relatively bearable. Plenel, a former Trotskyite, has never found it easy to be a journalist in France. But now he finds it intolerable.

"Our democracy is in serious danger," says Plenel, who founded the independent news website Mediapart three years ago. "Our republic, its laws and its principles are disintegrating into a big ash heap right in front of our eyes." Plenel is convinced that French freedom -- and, most of all, the freedom of the press -- is in serious jeopardy.

A Thorn in Sarkozy's Side

According to Plenel, the Mediapart journalists who first unearthed the scandal surrounding the billionaire L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt -- with its allegations of illegal political contributions and tax evasion -- have for months been under surveillance in an operation controlled by the Elysée Palace. Likewise, he claims, agents from France's domestic intelligence service (DCRI) have even analyzed the mobile-phone records of two of his journalists so as to precisely map out their network of contacts. The service also reportedly put together movement profiles of the two journalists, tracking their whereabouts by using GPS coordinates provided by their mobile phones.

Then, of course, there was the break-in at Mediapart's editorial offices located on a small Parisian side street in the 12th arrondissement, just behind the Bastille. Plenel refuses to believe it was a random burglary and, instead, attributes it to an operation ordered by Elysée Chief of Staff Claude Guéant.

"You aren't protecting me at all," Sarkozy reportedly complained last summer to Frédéric Péchenard, a childhood friend who directs the national police, and Bernard Squarcini, the head of the DCRI. At the time, in mid-July, with their daily exposés on the Bettencourt affair, Mediapart and Le Monde were a major thorn in Sarkozy's side. Since then, it has become clear that Péchenard and Squarcini apparently took his laments to heart.

Last spring, at the president's request, the DCRI looked into a private matter for Sarkozy. He wanted intelligence agents to figure out who had spread rumors about he and his wife, Carla Bruni, having extramarital affairs. The Interior Ministry sought to justify the operation by claiming that there was a suspected foreign plot to discredit the French president in the runup to the G-20 summit. Bruni was also allegedly given access to the police and intelligence reports.

Meanwhile, intelligence chief Squarcini, a Corsican counterterrorism expert whose skills Sarkozy had come to appreciate during his tenure as interior minister, has reportedly also set up a unit tasked with keeping tabs on journalists. The president himself specifies the individuals the group focuses its surveillance activities on, according to a claim made last Wednesday by Claude Angeli, editor-in-chief of the satirical weekly newspaper Le Canard enchaîné, one of France's few politically and financially independent papers. Angeli says his claims are based on "very reliable informants" within DCRI headquarters.

The story promptly triggered a barrage of denials. It was all "completely fabricated," according to officials at the Elysée Palace. The intelligence service "is not the Stasi or the KGB," Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux declared. "I don't get my orders from Sarko," Squarcini shot back, "but from my superior, the police chief."

But Angeli disagrees. "We are convinced that the president is personally involved in everything," he counters. "Nothing escapes Sarkozy."

Even in a country like France, this degree of personal intervention by the country's most powerful politician is unprecedented.

Taking Things a Step Further

Sarkozy's fellow conservatives like to point out that François Mitterrand, the former Socialist president, had a department at the Elysée dedicated solely to his own affairs, and that among its responsibilities was listening in on the telephone conversations of journalists. This so-called "cabinet noir" was only exposed a few years later, when its members were put on trial. But Sarkozy is apparently going one step further and secretly exploiting the police and intelligence service for his own purposes, justifying his actions by arguing that the state is in jeopardy.

Sarkozy's interventions occasionally become a matter of public knowledge, as was the case a few weeks ago when government investigators targeted Le Monde journalist Gérard Davet. In an article he had written on the Bettencourt affair, Davet had leveled serious charges against Labor Minister Eric Woerth and provided a surprising number of details to back up his claims. Davet's telephone statements were checked, and when the lists of calls he had made were compared with those of the presumed informant, an employee of the Justice Ministry was exposed -- and summarily transferred to French Guyana as punishment.

Le Monde then filed criminal charges against "persons unknown" at the Elysée for allegedly violating protections afforded to informants by a new media law. In January, Sarkozy had himself announced the law, which provides even stronger protection for sources, an indispensable tool for the work of journalists. But the law has one exception: If national interests are in jeopardy, sources can be revealed. And it was just this exception that the police chief who had assumed responsibility for the intelligence operation cited in his defense in September.

Last week, the administration was also forced to admit that -- in the interest of the state, of course -- a public prosecutor who had been decorated by Sarkozy had ordered intelligence agents to examine telephone communications between two Le Monde editors and a judge involved in the Bettencourt case.

Such revelations make it increasingly difficult to believe the many official denials of wrongdoing. Likewise, Sarkozy's adversaries point to a series of bizarre burglaries. For instance, Le Monde editor Davet's computer was recently stolen from his apartment. A journalist with the weekly magazine Le Point who happened to be working on the Bettencourt case was also the victim of a computer theft. Before that, laptops, an external hard drive and CDs containing recorded conversations with the L'Oréal heiress had mysteriously disappeared from Mediapart's offices.

A Threat to French Democracy?

As the government sees it, the culprits in all of these cases were merely ordinary thieves -- and ones who happened to be more interested in getting their hands on incriminating material than valuables. But Olivier Metzner, a Paris-based attorney representing Liliane Bettencourt's estranged daughter, Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers, begs to differ. In fact, Metzer is worried about the threat posed to French democracy if the government decides to "send out agents to steal the computers of journalists who are looking into the affair."

Over the past three years, the French have become more or less accustomed to Sarkozy's cronyism and the perceived "Berlusconi-ization" of the nation's media. For example industrialist Martin Bouygues, the godfather of Sarkozy's youngest son, controls TF1, the country's largest private television station. And the man who headed Sarkozy's office when he held the top position at the Interior Ministry is on the station's management board.

What's more, Sarkozy has figured out how to gain control over the entire public broadcasting system. For example, when appointing directors of radio and television stations, Sarkozy has shown a clear preference for friends and trusted associates. And they repay the president with loyalty, as can be gathered from a recent incident at France Inter, a major public radio channel, when two comedians were shown the door after making fun of the government.

Under these conditions, it's hardly surprising that there aren't many members of the media still willing to criticize the administration. Indeed, a major shift has now taken place in the French media landscape, and it is now online publications -- like Mediapart and Rue89, a website run by a former editor with the daily newspaper Libération -- who have alone assumed the mantle of uncovering scandals.

In the wake of recent accusations, the opposition Socialist Party and Greens have demanded an investigation into the alleged intelligence activities. Last Thursday, intelligence chief Squarcini and his superior, Police Chief Péchenard, were called to testify before a parliamentary commission behind closed doors. Details of the hearing have yet to be revealed -- most likely to protect the national interest.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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