Press and President in new standoff in France



Image: Flickr/Downing Street

A political and financial scandal involving a French cabinet minister and allegedly France’s richest woman is again highlighting the tense relations between President Nicolas Sarkozy and the press.

Labour Minister Eric Woerth is suspected of taking illegal donations for UMP, the ruling party, for which he formerly served as treasurer. A string of revelations published in newspapers has weakened him and Mr Sarkozy.

News website Mediapart fired the opening shot. In June, the site published transcripts of a secret recording of Liliane Bettencourt, the billionaire heiress of L’Oreal, and her wealth manager, Patrice de Maistre. Political donations are mentioned on the tape, which was recorded by Ms Bettencourt’s butler.

Following this scoop, Mediapart published an interview of another employee of Ms Bettencourt, Claire Thibout. She accused the billionaire of making illegal cash donations to Mr Sarkozy. Ms Thibout has since then withdrawn this accusation.

Other revelations

Mediapart has not been the only newspaper to make compromising revelations about Mr Woerth and Mr Sarkozy. revealed that Patrice de Maistre received the Légion d’honneur, a state award, from the hands of Mr Woerth. After the minister denied playing any role in granting the award, magazine L’Express announced that the minister had written to the President making such a request.

Libération and Le Monde have also published various elements in what has become known as the Woerth-Bettancourt affair.


Mr Sarkozy and his minister have fought back. Mr Woerth said he is the victim of a “manhunt”. He has derided Mediapart several times. “How can you not be sceptical about facts conveyed by a website with a commercial aim, and maybe even a political aim?” he said in a debate in Parliament.

A high-ranking UMP member also accused the online pure player of using “fascist methods” against the government, prompting the Forum des journalistes, a professional association, to react:

“(These comments) only reveal the state of panic at the top of the state and its attempt to discredit, even in the most hateful manner, the media when it cannot control it,” said the association in a statement.

Many editorials have taken an openly critical stance against Mr Sarkozy. They accuse the President of trying to prevent justice. The case has so far been in the hands of a public prosecutor, who is directly answerable to the government. Calls to pass the case over to a more independent judge have remained unanswered.

Le Monde in lawsuit

The conflict between the press and the President reached new heights in the second half of July. After Le Monde published extracts of a police interrogation of Mr Maistre, a state intelligence agency admitted it tracked down the source the leak.

The newspaper launched a lawsuit, alleging a breach of the law protecting journalists’ sources.

The government has denied instructing the agency. Some argue that, in any case, the government did not breach the law (which it voted in late 2009), since the journalist was not investigated.

Open confrontation

Some commentators have underlined that action against officials responsible for leaks are hardly specific to Mr Sarkozy and the UMP. But editors note that the style is more openly confrontational.

Since Mr Sarkozy took the presidency in 2007, journalists have accused him of intimidation and criticized him for naming friends at the head of public media. The Woerth-Bettancourt affair has reinforced this climate.

On 26 September, Rémy Pfilmin, the freshly named head of public television broadcaster France Televisions, criticised Mediapart. Had the public broadcaster had the information of the Mediapart scoop, he would have treated it in a “more serious”, “less manipulative” and “more respectful” way, he said. These comments were condemned by journalist associations.