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France

Another coup for French news site Mediapart

©

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2013-04-05

Four months after French news site Mediapart broke the story, France's ex-budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac admitted he has a secret offshore account. But Mediapart editor Edwy Plenel (pictured) still has questions for politicians and the media.

In early December 2012, Mediapart – the French investigative site that has been making waves over the past few years – published a shocker, even by its own standards.

After years of exposing scandalous behavoir by members of former French President Nicolas Sarkzoy’s administration, the left-leaning online journal trained its sights on the new Socialist government, headed by François Hollande.

In a report published on December 4, Mediapart alleged that then-French budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac had a secret Swiss bank account.

Better known as “Monsieur Rigueur” – or Mr. Tough – for his integrity and crackdowns on excessive government spending, Cahuzac was also leading the fight against tax evasion in France.

When he ran for office in 2012, Hollande promised a squeaky-clean government that would make France’s wealthiest citizens pay to lift the country’s sagging economy. In sharp contrast to the “bling” and consumerist excesses of his predecessor, Hollande’s lifestyle matched his “President Normal” moniker. The new president did not vacation on yachts and he continued to live in his modest apartment.

Hollande’s tax tsar, Cahuzac, was the enforcer of his boss' austere presidency, leading the crusade against tax dodgers trying to escape France’s hefty 75-percent-wealth tax.
Mediapart’s allegations of Cahuzac’s secret stash in an offshore account seemed incongruous, to say the least.

But a day after the December 4 report, the online news site published a second story that included an audio track, which Mediapart alleged was a 2000 conversation between Cahuzac and his wealth manager about the Swiss bank account.

Amid questions over the authenticity of the audio track, Cahuzac himself repeatedly and vehemently denied the allegations, filing two libel suits against the online journal.

‘Journalism without proof is like apricot yogurt without the apricot’

But in the months that followed, the tide appeared to be turning against France’s crusading tax tsar.

On March 19, Cahuzac resigned as budget minister after a formal investigation was launched into the case. But “Monsieur Rigueur” continued to maintain his innocence – and many French observers seemed to believe him.

In a blog posted the day after Cahuzac’s resignation, Jean-Michel Apathie, a political commentator on the French RTL radio and Canal + TV stations, continued to dismiss Mediapart’s reporting. “Journalism without proof is like apricot yogurt without the apricot: a rip-off,” he noted.

Writing in the weekly Nouvel Observateur, columnist Bruno Roger-Petit took aim at Mediapart’s founder-editor, Edwy Plenel.

“It’s possible that under the pretext of defending democracy and the republic, Mediapart and Plenel are in fact weakening them,” wrote Roger-Petit.

‘Four months of battle’ for the truth to emerge

Nearly four months after Mediapart published its first report, it emerged that the upstart news site was actually fulfilling its role as the “fourth estate,” by placing political players under close scrutiny.

French newspapers express shock at ex-minister's confession
On April 2, when Cahuzac finally admitted that he hid 600,000 euros in a UBS account in Switzerland for more than two decades, the French press reacted with shock and indignation.

But far from feeling vindicated for breaking a story that so many dismissed, Plenel appeared dismayed after Cahuzac’s admission.

"It’s sad that in this case, it took four months, four months of battle by an independent news organisation, for this truth to be realised by everyone," said Plenel in an interview with FRANCE 24.

A veteran journalist who was a former executive editor at the leading French daily, Le Monde, before founding Mediapart in 2007, Plenel is critical of the French political establishment and the news media.

"The responsibility is not solely Jérôme Cahuzac’s,” said Plenel. “It’s the system that has locked into this lie with the complicity of the political class – both right and left – and unfortunately, a large portion of the media. The information that we acknowledge today as part of Cahuzac’s admission has been on the table since early December. When democracy does not work, it does not make journalists happy."

‘A little Robespierre of justice’ with his ‘extreme-left-wing site’

In the course of his long career, the 60-year-old French journalist has made many powerful people very unhappy. As one of France’s leading investigative reporters in the 1980s and 1990s, Plenel broke some the biggest stories of those decades - including the French secret service's involvement in the sinking of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour in 1985.

A leftist who was a Trotskyist in his youth, Plenel is not popular – to say the least – with the French centre-right.

In 2007, when he announced his plans to start a subscription-based online news site, it was the early days of the Sarkozy presidency. The next five years saw the centre-right UMP party under intense Mediapart scrutiny.

A few years later, when Mediapart broke what came to be called “the Bettencourt scandal” involving L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt and cash payments to some UMP politicians, Plenel incurred the wrath of Sarkozy's party.

French right-wing commentator Nadine Morano dismissed Mediapart as a “Hitlero-Trotskyist” news site and a senior UMP official called Plenel “a little Robespierre of justice” with his “extreme-left-wing site”.

But with the latest scandal, the so-called “extreme-left-wing site” has proved that it’s willing and able to scrutinise the current Socialist government with the same levels of journalistic rigour it applied to the previous administration.

Looking back on the four-month period between Mediapart’s initial report and Cahuzac’s admission earlier this week, Plenel is astonished that the former budget minister succeeded in subjecting the country to a four-month charade of denials in parliament and elsewhere, as well as libel suits.

"If he was lying, it’s because nobody confronted him,” said Plenel. “Everyone thought that if a politician looks you in the eye and denies the allegations, one should believe him. Well no, sometimes politicians lie.”
 

Date created : 2013-04-04

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