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French discover investigative journalism - and how to muzzle it

In 2010, French investigative journalists uncovered two scandals involving Nicolas Sarkozy during his pre-presidential career. The accusations were heralded as a triumph for press freedom, but the government retaliated.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy

Sarkozy has tried to keep a tight grip on the media

In a scandal that rocked French political foundations to their core, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt was accused of giving undeclared gifts to politicians including Nicolas Sarkozy before he became president. If that wasn't enough, investigative reporters also unearthed claims that Sarkozy took kickbacks from an arms contract which, the reporters said, indirectly led to the killing of 11 French nationals in Pakistan.

In a country not normally known for its journalistic digging, these accusations were championed as a triumph for press freedom.

"France has no tradition of investigative journalism," Gerard Davet, one of the first true proponents of the trade, told Deutsche Welle. A gaunt, soft-spoken 44-year-old, Davet cut his teeth on political scandals at local daily Le Parisien before moving to national daily and journal of reference Le Monde, where he has been sticking those teeth, these past nine years, into Nicolas Sarkozy.

But if the sort of journalism that brought down the Nixon administration is a recent thing in France, it has made a big impact over the last year.

Uncovering the scandals

Le Monde, but also the investigative news website Mediapart, set up by ex-Le Monde editor Edwy Plenel, and the satirical and investigative weekly Le Canard Enchainée, gave the French revelation after revelation, day after day as their reporters exposed the fascinating meanderings of the Bettencourt and Karachigate scandals.

A woman reads Le Monde

Le Monde is among the most respected newspapers in France

In the first, the treasurer of Sarkozy's UMP party and former Budget Minister Eric Woerth was accused of taking large, undeclared (and therefore illegal) cash contributions from the third-richest person in France, the heiress to the L'Oreal fortune, Liliane Bettencourt, and of giving her political favors in exchange. Sarkozy was also accused of having received envelopes full of Bettencourt cash at dinner parties at the heiress's house.

That was long before he became president; as were his alleged misdemeanors in the Karachigate affair. In this second scandal, Sarkozy is alleged to have set up a scheme whereby a percentage of the bribes paid on the margins of a submarine sale to Pakistan were funneled back to France where they were spent on Edouard Balladur's presidential bid, of which Sarkozy was campaign manager.

The revelations had the potential to be highly damaging, especially if they could be made to stand up in court.

But the alleged reaction from the presidential Elysees Palace also makes for some gripping reading.

Fighting back

Sarkozy purportedly ordered the secret police to find out who was leaking information about these scandals to journalists such as Gerard Davet and shut them up.

Davet says they did this by obtaining access to their phone bills. It was in this way that they identified and sacked one advisor to the justice minister who had supposedly been leaking to Le Monde.

"The French government and Nicolas Sarkozy acted illegally because they are not allowed to try to discover the sources of journalists. It's forbidden by the law," Davet told Deutsche Welle. His newspaper has opened legal proceedings.

Liliane Bettencourt

The Bettencourt scandal is the most recent to engulf Sarkozy

By the fall, ministers were lining up to deny everything. Government spokesman Xavier Bertrand said it was absolute nonsense and the then-Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie described the claims as "pure fanstasy."

"This idea that the government is listening to us, observing us, following our every move and employing the means to do so is an old French fantasy, but there is a moment when fantasies have to come to an end," said the ecology minister at the time, Nathalie Koscuisko-Morizet.

Under pressure

In a further damaging leak, a memo surfaced from the prime minister's office addressed to the Interior Ministry pointing out that it is illegal to try to uncover journalists' sources.

Davet - as well as the internet newspaper Rue 89 and the weekly news magazine Le Point - have all been the object of suspicious burglaries. Davet's laptop and his GPS were stolen. These contain information about whom he's been talking to and where and what those sources have been saying.

The organization Reporters Without Borders say the pressure that's been put on Davet fits into a wider picture. President Jean-Francois Julliard says verbal attacks against journalists by politicians of the left as well as right have intensified over the past year. He's also concerned about France's new law on the broadcast media.

"In France, since March 2009, it's the president himself who appoints the presidents of French public TV and radio," Julliard said.

As far back as 1981, former President Francois Mitterrand replaced the men in charge with his people when he came to power. But instead of making that link weaker, by giving the choice to a mixed body of journalists and politicians for example, Sarkozy chose to make it official, Julliard argues.

Former French President Francois Mitterrand

Mitterrand, left, was the first to change the rules for appointing French media leaders

"Now, even if we think the president of French television or the president of French radio are not men of Sarkozy … not little soldiers of President Sarkozy … every decision they take is suspect," he said.

Media-savvy president

Since long before he became president, Sarkozy has understood the importance of dominating the news: Through his political actions, but also through his private life.

Sarkozy also loves - and is very good at - verbal jousting with journalists.

However, his critics say, while the culture of investigative journalism has taken root in France, he wants to carry on with the old French way of doing things. And it's not just the politicians' fault.

Many journalists and politicians have known each other since school, address each other with the familiar 'tu' and attend the same Parisian dinner parties. It is a world where politicians have love affairs with the journalists who are writing their biographies. Where, in sum, the press and politics are just too close for comfort.

As Le Monde's Gerard Davet puts it, the journalists and the politicians have still much to learn about keeping their distance.

Author: John Laurenson, Paris
Editor: Rob Turner

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