French press outraged over Sarkozy attacks

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Outraged French journalists demanded on Friday that supporters of embattled President Nicolas Sarkozy apologise for branding coverage of a party funding scandal as fascist.

Government ministers went on the attack this week after a news website reported that an accountant had accused France's richest woman of handing out cash in brown envelopes to Sarkozy and his campaign treasurer.

Xavier Bertrand, the current chairman of Sarkozy's UMP party, said the Mediapart site had stooped to "fascist methods" and two ministers said the reporting recalled "the tactics of the 1930s".

Families Minister Nadine Morano accused the subscription-only site of mounting a stunt to line its pockets, and Prime Minister Francois Fillon accused reporters of becoming "self-declared judges".

Mediapart and its interviewee, accountant Claire Thibout, have stuck by their story -- that billionaire L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt made large cash payments to UMP figures in the run-up to the 2007 presidential race.

And now much of the rest of the press has swung behind the site to defend it, and the media more generally, from a government counterattack that many editorialists branded a threat to French democracy.

"Sarkozydom is trying to find sacrificial lambs to cover up its own carelessness," declared the magazine Marianne, which itself published copies of Bettencourt ledgers confirming a series of mysterious cash withdrawals.

"But there's something more worrying: This administration seems incapable of accepting the most simple rules of democratic life, starting with the existence of independent newspapers," the editorial warned.

Marianne editorialists demanded that the government apologise, while the editor of the left-wing daily Liberation, Laurent Joffrin accused the UMP figures of "totally unwarranted and outrageous insults".

Pressure group Reporters Without Borders, which normally finds itself called on to defend press freedom in developing world autocracies, issued a statement condemning the Elysee's apparently coordinated attacks.

"It is in the interest of democracies to have an independent press, sometimes a rebellious one, in short, a check on power," it said.

Mediapart has itself threatened to sue for defamation, and its editor Edwy Plenel -- a former editor-in-chief of the respected daily Le Monde -- made a strong defence of the story, which has made headlines around the globe.

"We are professional journalists," he told AFP. "I have known attacks under other presidents of left and right, but never such low and vicious ones.

"The violence, the bad faith and excessive nature of these attacks shows that we're not dealing with rumours, but with precise facts," he said.

Media observer Dominique Wolton said the vicious tone of the clash between Sarkozy and the media reflects increased competition between new online outlets and ailing dailies.

But he said it also reflected a breakdown in Sarkozy's formerly close relationship with the media, which he has often used for political gain.

"The more political power cozies up to the media, the stronger the backlash is," he said.

© 2010 AFP

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