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In France, is Sarkozy spying on journalists?

Le Carnard says Sarkozy is spying on reporters. His office calls the claim "grotesque." (Reuters/Philippe Wojazer).

Every Wednesday morning in France, rain or shine, half a million people eagerly wait for the satirical weekly, Le Canard Enchainé. Some wait for it nervously. The old-fashioned broadsheet, a venerable media institution that has no real equivalent in other European countries, posts its motto defiantly on its front page: "Freedom of the press wears out only when you do not use it." 

And use it it does! Every week it joyfully exposes politicians' peccadilloes, sarcastically sends darts and laurels to their sloppy colleagues in the press and cunningly publishes confidential memos and transcripts of supposedly private political or bureaucratic meetings.

Every now and then it drops a big bomb on Paris' political establishment, whoever is in power, the right or the left. In the 1980s and '90s, its blaring guns were pounding Socialist François Mitterrand. Now it is the turn of the conservative Sarkozy government to feel the heat.

In its latest issue the newspaper has bluntly accused the French president of "supervising the spying of French journalists." Anyone who digs too far into stories that Nicolas Sarkozy considers "out of limits" is a target, writes Le Canard. The hottest item on the list of the president's taboo stories appears to be the alleged illegal funding of the ruling party by the richest woman in France, Liliane Bettencourt, a case that implicates the current labor minister, Eric Woerth. (See my previous blog entry.)

According to Le Canard's editor-in-chief, Claude Angeli, each time Sarkozy is upset by a press story he personally calls Bernard Squarcini, head of the French counterintelligence services known as DCRI, and orders him to swoop in on the sniffing journalists, check their phone calls, and identify their sources inside the administration. The mobile phone companies dutifully provide listings of all of the journalists' phone calls, Le Canard writes.

Squarcini apparently does not enjoy the role. "I am not interested in monitoring journalists," he told a parliamentary committee, "except those that might sleep with the enemy. I have much more pressing issues to follow, like the growing threat of terrorism."

However, whatever his caveats, "he has to comply and act," Le Canard says. "A special team has been set up within DCRI to carry out discreet searches," although the actual "plumbing operations" might have been entrusted, for the sake of "plausible deniability," to private contractors and former members of the "services."

Recently a few journalists known to be in the firing line of the government's sleuths have been the victims of strange burglaries. Their houses or offices have been broken into, computers, GPS, hard discs, and CDs stolen.

These misadventures have affected Le Point, a respected center-right weekly magazine, the "paper of record" Le Monde and Mediapart, a savvy left-leaning online publication directed by Edwy Plenel, a former editor-in-chief of Le Monde and a victim in the 1980s, under François Mitterrand's presidency, of a particularly vindictive phone-tapping operation.

The day after Le Canard broke the story, Mediapart followed up by asserting that two of its journalists in charge of the Woerth-Bettencourt investigation had been monitored by the secret services. In an interview with Le Journal du Dimanche, Edwy Plenel also denounced that its real estate portfolio had been investigated and Mediapart minority shareholders put under pressure. The online news media also accused Claude Guéant, the powerful and secretive general secretary of Elysée Palace, of overseeing the whole espionage operation.

President Sarkozy and his spokespeople have denied any involvement in these barbouzeries (the French word for spooks' undercover operations) and described the accusations as "grotesque." Two people accused in the media of being the brains of the conspiracy, Claude Guéant and Bernard Squarcini, have announced that they will file a complaint for libel.

The issue has triggered sharp reactions. Many journalists fear that the government wants to intimidate them and force them to stay away from controversial stories. And they are surprised that many in France seem to consider this "affaire" as secondary. "Anything that attacks press freedom, a right of all citizens, should be a national scandal," said Edway Plenel. "In the U.S., it would be."

On Monday French journalists unions asked for the establishment of an independent investigative committee to shed light on the harassments suffered by their colleagues covering the Woerth-Bettencourt story. The left-wing opposition has gleefully jumped into the fray. The Socialist Party, which is already up in arms about the government's pension overhaul, sees this whole pandemonium as a great opportunity to slam Sarkozy and endear itself to the media. It's called for a parliamentary investigation into what it called "sickly interventionism" against journalists.

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