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See you tomorrow, paedophile friends...
English newspapers have blithely relayed Nicolas Sarkozy's outbreak of rage during an off-the-record briefing on Friday. The French President is said to have lashed out at a journalist - and insulted him, calling him a 'paedophile'. However, even if he actually used the word 'paedophile' in front of the press, a RMC journalist revealed that what really happened is substantially different from what the media claim.
As Sarkozy's words could stir up criticisms and create a (even more) serious conflict between Sarkozy and journalists, it is critical to understand in which context the French President uttered the word 'paedophile'.
What Nicolas Sarkozy really said
French President Nicolas Sarkozy exploded during an off-the-record briefing on Friday at a NATO summit in Lisbon. When asked by a journalist about what the French media is calling “L’affaire Karachi,” he angrily told him : 'you say ridiculous things. You check nothing'. He then launched into a controversial and provocative tirade about press ethics and the use of unnamed sources : 'And you! I've no evidence against you but it would seem you're a paedophile. Who told me? I have an absolute conviction. I've seen the intelligence reports but I won't tell you which ones; I've seen someone but I won't tell you who, and it was by word of mouth. But I have an absolute conviction you're a paedophile ... Can you explain yourself?'. Lastly, after a 10-minute diatribe against various journalists, during which he kept returning to the paedophile analogy, he added fuel to the flames by declaring: "See you tomorrow, paedophile friends."
Why did Nicolas Sarkozy use these words :
By suggesting that the reporter was a paedophile, Nicolas Sarkozy was apparently intending to point out quite how easy it is to accuse people of crimes based on innuendo. But these tactless words highlight the fact that The French President is annoyed by the "Karachigate" accusations that he used illegal kickbacks from arms sales to Pakistan to fund a political campaign in 1995, when he was a government minister. This is what a former defence minister of France, Charles Millon, said last week.
To be more precise, Sarkozy is among a string of top French politicians embroiled in the long-running scandal "Karachigate". Magistrates are investigating allegations that kickbacks on the submarine contracts were paid in 1994-95 to the presidential campaign of the then Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, whose campaign director was Nicolas Sarkozy. When President Jacques Chirac was elected in May 1995 he cancelled the remaining "commissions" to Pakistani public figures. There have been hypothesis that this led to a revenge attack on a bus carrying French submarine engineers in Karachi, causing the death of 11 Frenchmen, and 2 Pakistanis. After Woerthgate, in which the former Minister of Labour, Solidarity and Civil Service was accused of taking illegal cash from France's richest woman Liliane Bettencourt to subsidize Sarkozy’s successful 2007 presidential election bid, this new controversy tarnishes the President's ever-declining popularity even more. This may go some way to explaining his reaction.
How did his office and the media react :
Ethics or truth ? That was the dilemma journalists were facing after Nicolas Sarkozy's declaration. The fact is that according to a tacit agreement, journalists cannot use quotations during off-the-record briefings with the President. But given the tenor of Sarkozy's words, some newspapers and website chose to report them, as it illustrated how Sarkozy is straightforward - and sometimes rude - with journalists. So to speak, they broke their confidentiality 'promise'. But others chose not to disclose them : Le Monde, for example argued that there was no interest in relating them. Really ?
On the other side of the spectrum, the president’s office insisted that he made no such remarks. The Elysée Palace denied that the President had ever used the word 'paedophile'. But according to the French magazine L'Express, Mr. Sarkozy’s aides insisted on having a recording of the conversation erased after the briefing. Why would he feel the need to do that if there was nothing to erase ?
In conclusion : after Nicolas Sarkozy was accused of using security service to spy on journalists, this event proves that the relationship between the French President and the Fourth Estate is reaching breaking point. And the future reports about the Karachigate will not defuse the situation.
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