French President Nicolas Sarkozy has had, at best, a peculiar relationship with the press. Unlike his remote predecessors, who shut journalists out of their private lives, Sarkozy ferried reporters right into the presidential bedroom. “Me and Carla, it’s really serious,” he gushed at his first major press conference in 2008, referring to then-girlfriend Carla Bruni, whom he married that year.
In addition to courting the press, Sarkozy has enjoyed unprecedented power over it. The 23rd president of the French republic is the first to be in charge of nominating the chairman of France’s public television broadcaster, France Télévisions. Close friends, too, run some parts of the media, which has raised questions about dropped stories and the sacking of journalists who present unfavourable depictions of the leader. “Sarkozy plays with the press more than any other president,” says Dominique Moïsi, founder and senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations, “and he also seems more intent on controlling it.”
Known for a temper and sharp tongue, Sarkozy has publicly attacked and bullied journalists who are less than reverent, most recently calling a group of reporters “pedophiles.” But lately, these tongue-lashings have taken on a more serious form. French journalists have been complaining of a climate of intimidation, likening France to Russia, and accusing the Élysée of tapping phones, threatening, and even stealing their computers to suppress reporting on scandals involving the president. Reporters Without Borders has dubbed these incursions against the press as the ruling party’s war on investigative journalism.
Targeted news outlets have been working on stories relating to “Karachigate” (allegations that Sarkozy, in 1994, used illegal kickbacks from an arms deal with Pakistan to fund a failed political campaign), and the “Bettencourt affair.” The latter scandal, involving L’Oréal cosmetics heiress Liliane Bettencourt, embarrassed the government when secretly taped conversations and leaked testimony raised questions about possible illegal donations by Bettencourt to the president’s centre-right UMP party, Bettencourt’s alleged tax evasion, and influence peddling.
France’s most respected newspaper, Le Monde, accused the Élysée of spying on Gérard Davet, one of its reporters who was investigating the alleged party financing by Bettencourt. Davet’s home computer and GPS system were stolen. The paper also claimed that the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur (DCRI), the French counter-intelligence agency, broke a new law that protects sources by obtaining phone records to track down Davet’s sources. “The law is absolutely clear,” read a Le Monde editorial: the legislation, it quoted, says that “the confidentiality of journalists’ sources is protected in the exercise of their mission to inform the public.”
Similarly, Mediapart, an investigative website, claims it’s the “object of an all-out surveillance campaign.” In October, two laptops, a hard drive and CD-ROMs with information about l’affaire Bettencourt were stolen from its offices. In another attack on a journalist reporting on Bettencourt that month, the computer of a reporter for Le Point magazine was stolen. Edwy Plenel, Mediapart editor-in-chief, wrote in a recent article that Sarkozy is degrading France’s constitutional right to freedom of information: “For several months now, those whose profession is to provide information in the country that [Sarkozy] governs are the victims of thoroughly reprehensible practices.”
Claude Angeli, the editor of Le canard enchaîné, a satirical and investigative paper, wrote that, as part of this crackdown on the media, Sarkozy has overseen the establishment of a special cell within the DCRI, which uses counter-intelligence techniques to track journalists whenever they offend the president. Others in France are crying out against the increasingly repressive media climate. Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard says, “It’s becoming more and more difficult to be an investigative journalist in France.” Most worrying, he feels, is that news sources are being threatened. “Journalists have ways to defend and protect themselves. That’s not the case for their sources.”
This situation is all the more alarming given the recently leaked WikiLeaks cables, which confirm what many in France know too well: that the self-absorbed president, described in the U.S. Embassy memos as “thin-skinned and authoritarian,” is verging on the tyrannical. So far, the government has denied all allegations of state interference and the surveillance of journalists. At a press conference in October, where Sarkozy was questioned about the targeting of reporters, he replied simply, “I don’t see how that concerns me.” But Sarkozy intends to seek a second term in 2012; failing to do so would make him only the second president in 30 years to lose a re-election bid. With the stakes that high, keeping up appearances is clearly an unrelenting task, leading many to wonder about the lengths to which a leader might go.