In the course of a couple of hours on Wednesday, France was rocked by two judicial decisions with profound political repercussions for French politics and the press’ right to publish. Just as a baffled public learned that former President Nicolas Sarkozy had been put under formal investigation for corruption and influence-peddling, France’s highest court, the Cour de Cassation, upheld a July 2013 lower court ruling ordering the muckraking news website Mediapart to take down 72 articles related to “l’affaire Bettencourt.” It’s a fight destined to continue, with a founder of Mediapart vowing to take the free-press case to the European Court of Human Rights.
This scandal, which became public in 2010, revolves around the alleged illegal funding of Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party by the heiress of the L’Oréal fortune, Liliane Bettencourt. It has been at the heart of a tense debate on press freedom, privacy, and the right to know. These 72 suppressed articles drew much of their information from hours of clandestine recordings of private conversations held in the Bettencourt house. The author of the recordings, Pascal Bonnefoy, Bettencourt’s butler, said he feared that unscrupulous people were trying to benefit from his employer’s frailty. Claiming a violation of their privacy, Liliane Bettencourt and her legal tutor, Patrice de Maistre, sued Mediapart.
After the lower-court decision last year, the investigative news site, which was faced with crippling fines if it did not comply, took down the articles. At the same time, Mediapart vowed to continue the legal fight, strongly defending its right to publish the recordings and asserting the public’s right to know on matters of public interest. It also waged a public campaign, winning online support from more than 56,000 people and from a number of media and civil society associations.
On Wednesday, in a strongly worded editorial, François Bonnet, one of the founders of the news site, said Mediapart would challenge what he called “this iniquitous decision, this attack against the freedom to report and the public’s right to know.” By submitting the case to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights, he wrote, Mediapart would find an institution that “has built a record that is much more attentive to freedom of the press.” A favorable judgment by the European court would supersede the French court decision and, Bonnet hopes, establish an important precedent that might have positive repercussions for press freedom across Europe.
The showdown comes in a highly charged and polarized political environment–a deeply unpopular Socialist president, a confused and divided center-right opposition, and a spectacular surge by the far-right National Front in recent municipal and European elections.
On the media front, the court’s decision reflects more than the conventional tug of war between privacy and the press’ right to report. It also reflects a broader rift on the definition of the role of the press in a democracy. Since its creation in 2008 by a team that included Edwy Plenel, former editor-in-chief of Le Monde, who demonstrated an attachment to tough investigative journalism, Mediapart has been pushing aggressively for a watchdog role. That has upset members of a political caste, right and left, that has often tended to ignore the system of checks and balances and to act, like King Louis XIV, “selon son bon plaisir”(according to its whims).
[Reporting from Brussels]