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The Bettencourt scandal: Sarkozy and the media face off

Text by Guillaume LOIRET

Latest update : 2010-07-29

Amid a growing scandal involving Labour Minister Eric Woerth, in which new revelations seemingly appear daily, the French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s already tense relations with the French press are being further strained.

 

There have been two key moments in the murky L’Oreal cash scandal that highlight the divergent styles that have been used to try to manage the media during this seemingly never-ending political crisis.
Nicolas Sarkozy and the press

June 2006. The editor of Paris Match (Lagardère Group) Alain Genestar is forced to resign after posting a photo of the president’s second wife Cecilia Sarkozy with her lover and future husband.

January 2008. The publication director of the newspaper Libération, Laurent Joffrin, is snubbed by Nicolas Sarkozy during a press conference.

January 2010. The secretary general of the Elysee, Claude Gueant, denounced as "reckless really guilty" the two France 3 journalists taken hostage in Afghanistan.

June 2010. Two journalists placed under investigation following a complaint from Elysee Palace. Rue89 had broadcast a video showing Nicolas Sarkozy on the offensive, even aggressive, ahead of a debate on France 3.

June 2010. During a meeting with the director of "Le Monde", Nicolas Sarkozy seeks to influence the paper’s corporate investors.


On July 7, at the height of the scandal, when the online news service Mediapart published multiple reports of impropriety implicating French cabinet members (including allegations that implicated French President Nicolas Sarkozy directly), several voices among Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party reacted with particular ferocity. 

The party's Secretary General Xavier Bertrand was among those who pounced on the allegations and slammed the "fascist methods" of the press. 

In contrast, just five days later, Sarkozy invited France's most popular TV news presenter, France 2's David Pujadas, to the Élysée Palace for a rare summertime interview during which the president used considerably tamer language to reaffirm support for his embattled labour minister, Eric Woerth. 

On that occasion the president controlled every detail: the setting, the time, and the topics. Sarkozy was at his smooth, urbane best, seemingly supremely confident during the interview itself and dominating the exchange.

Provocation and domination: two methods that speak volumes about the complex relationship between President Sarkozy and journalists.
 
Plenel on Sarkozy: “We are either with him, or against him”
 
Mediapart founder Edwy Plenel says of Sarkozy, "We are either with him, or against him. Nicolas Sarkozy believes that with both journalists and politics, everything is a power struggle."
 
For his part, Plenel does not mince his words regarding the UMP's scathing personal attacks on both himself and his online news site Mediapart. When asked to respond to the UMPs attacks, he called it the "pedagogy of fear imposed by power." 
 
The Élysée Palace, somewhat unsurprinsingly, has a complete different take on the relationship. Spokesman Frank Louvier refuted Plenel's characterisation of Sarkozy's supposedly tense relations with the press, calling it "a non-issue. "Plenel's Mediapart, Louvier explained, is an exception. Louvier added that serious journalistic errors have been committed by Mediapart under Plenel’s leadership.
 
The spokesman stated emphatically, however, that just because a single news outlet may have made some mistakes in its reporting does not mean that the president’s overall relationship with the media is strained.
 
Corporate reflex
 
Shocked to see the website he launched in 2007 compared to the fascist press, Plenel fought back by filing a defamation suit against UMP head Xavier Bertrand. 
 
Plenel also found an ally in France's leading press association, the National Union of Journalists, who later filed a complaint of their own. 
 
"Insulting journalists is a serious, even political mistake," said the union's General Secretary Dominque Pradalié. When the Élysée Palace engages in such attacks, the response must be "categorical," he explained, because "everyone feels targeted" by this kind of language
 
Mediapart itself has now become a major news story.
 
Some observers believe there is a coordinated whispering campaign being orchestrated by the Élysée Palace to discredit the online news service and its reporting.  

News agencies squaring up
 
This has prompted other major French news outlets, including Le Monde, Marianne and others, to rally behind Mediapart. The issue is even resonating with the international media, with the New York Times and the Reuters news agency both filing stories supportive of Mediapart’s struggle with the Sarkozy administration.
 
Reporter David Pujadas was widely criticised for his Sarkozy interview on July 12, with many media critics slamming it as a charade.
 
However Pujadas did have his defenders, one surprising voice of support was from Plenel himself. "Pujadas was in an untenable position.  I don't blame him.  It's complicated questioning the president who is also the director human resources for France Television. This interview clearly shows what's corrupting the [media] profession... it's enslavement through politics," said the Mediapart chief.
  
The president's olive branch along with the July 12th interview does nothing to ameliorate the situation, according to French media analyst Dominque Wolton. 
 
"With more allegations emerging, the Woerth [L’Oreal cash scandal] case is not over," he added, "nothing has substantively changed: Sarkozy is caught in his own trap and he will have no other choice but to change his relationship with the media."

 

Date created : 2010-07-21

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