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Welcome to our media studies department. If you'd like to read about the book that shook France's leading daily, Le Monde, click here. Or try this:

Warning off the Press
When a chemical plant blew up in Toulouse and the press started investigating, the power got nervous.  For the first time in English, a study  written for Message, Germany's leading journalism review.  For more chronicles of France's muckraking movement, check out the Links page.


On Sept. 21, 2001, the AZF chemical factory exploded in Toulouse, killing 29 people and wounding more than 2000.  The blast left a crater 50 meters wide, and for kilometers in every direction windows were shattered.  In Toulouse, home of Airbus, fears of a terrorist attack similar to the World Trade Center seemed plausible.  But three days following the catastrophe, the Prosecutor of the Republic in Toulouse, Michel Bréard, declared that there was a “99 percent chance” that the causes of the explosion were accidental.  Not everyone believed him, including the Minister of the Environment, Yves Cochet of the Green Party, who a few days later publicly declared that it was too soon to rule out terrorism.  Thus began a watershed event in the history of French investigative journalism.

Predictably, the media rushed into the vacuum created by official confusion, and swiftly identified conflicts among the different police services investigating the explosion.  In early October reporters Marc Mennessier et Jean-Marc Leclerc of the daily Le Figaro and Franck Heriot of the weekly Valeurs Actuelles focused suspicion on a Moslem named "Hassan J." --his full name cannot be printed, for reasons that will become clear later in this piece -- who died in the blast.  Heriot reported that J. had been marked by the police for his “Islamic sympathies,” reinforced by a “fundamentalist” imam from the suburbs of Toulouse, while Le Figaro evoked suspicions that he had “participated during several years” in a luxury car-theft ring operating between France and Germany, noting that the car in which he arrived at the blast site had German license plates.  Le Figaro also cited anonymous sources (including at least one police report) to the effect that J.’s apartment had been cleaned out before police were able to search it.  Another detail, picked up by Le Figaro after Reuters uncovered it, was that at the moment of his death J.  “strangely wore several layers of underclothes.”  Explained Le Figaro, “Recently, a Palestinian terrorist who survived an attack was likewise found in similar dress.” 

The end of Mennessier’s report asked: “Why did Hassan J. wear kamikaze clothes when his eventual sacrifice did not seem indispensable to the operation?”[1]  It would be hard to miss the implication that the fundamental question of whether he helped set off the blast or not was already settled.  Events soon proved otherwise.

The family of the suspect, joined by the imam and his Moslem association, plus prosecutor Bréard, filed civil and criminal charges of defamation and “diffusion of false news.” When a judgement was handed down by a court in Toulouse last July 2,[2] the latter charge was dropped, but the reporters and their publishers were convicted of defamation and ordered to pay fairly heavy fines and damages, by French standards.[3] 

On one level, this is a typical story of the media rushing to judgement, not least because Le Figaro’s own assessment of the affair is that it “published something that wasn’t perfectly exact.” [4]  Its reporters could not prove their implication that Hassan J. was the author of the explosion, nor that they had exercised all possible care before publishing their suspicions.  They thus failed the two legal tests of defamation in France, which are that any published information must be “complete and absolute”, or that the reporter’s “good faith” was shown by determinedly seeking out differing points of view. 

It is significant that the leading reporters’ union, the Syndicat National des Journalistes, which promised its full support when the charges were announced last January, subsequently declined “to make any pronouncements on the facts of the case” before the trial.[5]  The profession in France has not forgotten L’Affaire Yann Piat, a 1997 book that ineptly accused two leading political figures of masterminding the assassination of a deputy to the National Assembly, without proof.  The resulting defamation trial not only generated massive fines for the reporters and their publisher, but deeply tarnished the image of investigative reporters, exactly as the Janet Cooke affair did to U.S. reporters in 1981.

But there is another story here, which has been building for nearly 20 years: After a decade in which investigative journalism became a major force in French politics and society,[6] its adversaries are aggressively seeking new means of counter-attacking.  The effect is sometimes pathetic, as when former president of the Constitutional Council Roland Dumas publicly accused the media of “throwing all those who bite the bait of denigration into the arms of a reborn Fascism” – meaning the extreme right party, the National Front -- and thus “sapping the foundations of democracy.”[7]  Shortly thereafter Mr. Dumas was convicted of profiting from corporate embezzlement during his tenure as Foreign Minister, through the generosity of a mistress hired by the Elf oil company expressly to influence his decisions on trade issues. That hardly fortifies the image of French democracy, either. 

Other tactics being used against investigative reporters are less funny.  Recently, a reporter investigating a major French industry was wiretapped by his targets, and the information gained through the wiretap was given to his adversary in a civil proceeding.[8]  Likewise, the home of Anne-Marie Casteret, one of France’s leading investigative reporters, was burglarised after she published an article in the weekly L’Express supporting the terrorist theory of the AZF explosion[9]; a portable computer and address books were stolen.  The last known occasion that a prominent journalist working on a major story was burglarised occurred in the mid-1980s, when reporter (now editor-in-chief) Edwy Plenel of Le Monde undertook an extended investigation of the François Mitterrand regime.

The French penal and civil codes, which include numerous provisions that enable repression of the media, have also been applied in novel forms to discourage investigators.  The most striking, perhaps, is the reféré, a legal proceeding which allows a single magistrate to ban the publication of a book or article, without an evidentiary hearing.  Initiated by government decree in 1987, it was first employed to prevent the publication of an investigation of the son of then-President Mitterrand.  In 1998, it developed in startling new ways.  That May, publisher Albin Michel and independent investigator Antoine Gaudin were hit with an injunction ordering them to pull every copy of Gaudin’s new work, La Mafia des Tribunaux de Commerce, off the bookstore shelves or pay a fine of $18,000 for every copy remaining; by the end of the first afternoon following the judgement, the defendants owed about $1 million in fines.  The injunction was reversed by a higher court after a scandal erupted, but the book’s targets changed tactics, filing apparently coordinated libel suits in courts across France.  The following August, film star Alain Delon obtained an injunction forbidding respected investigative reporter Bernard Violet from even undertaking a biography of Delon.[10] 

In this context of a legal and extra-legal campaign against investigative journalism, the fact that reporters were prosecuted for diffusion of false news – a crime which carries a penalty of five years’ imprisonment in peacetime, and was formerly punishable by death in time of war – assumes its full significance.  The law defines this crime as “the publication, diffusion or reproduction by any means of false news [or] fabricated evidence, falsified or falsely attributed to others, and which, created in bad faith, trouble public order or might have been capable of troubling it.” [11]  Note the particularly broad sweep of the latter provision: It is not necessary to prove that public order was disrupted by false news, only that it could have been.  However, bringing such cases to trial imposes an extra burden on the prosecution: Whereas in cases of defamation French journalists must prove that they acted professionally and in good faith, it is up to the prosecutor to demonstrate that they knowingly and wilfully published lies that could harm the public.  That is one reason that the latter charge is extremely rare. 

It is also noteworthy that Le Figaro was targeted – especially because, as the court’s judgement notes, “numerous media… had emitted doubts on the official thesis [of an accident] and advanced the thesis of terrorism before the first incriminated article” appeared in the journal.[12]  Le Figaro’s general news director, Jean-Marc Gonin, believes that it may have been filed because, under French judicial procedure, that would “oblige an investigating magistrate to go very far in finding the sources [of the journal’s stories].”[13]  Indeed, the judgement in the case pointedly notes that Le Figaro’s sources “are not revealed.”[14] 

It is a fact that Le Figaro and other French journals recently have been severely pressured to stop protecting confidential sources.   On Dec. 14, 1999, Hubert Levet of the financial journal Agefi was indicted on charges of “divulging confidential financial information” for publishing the semestrial accounts of the Aérospatiale-Matra group 48 hours before their official release.  The subsequent police investigation focused on uncovering Levet’s sources (and failed to do so).  Two days later, agents of the official Commission des operations de la Bourse (COB) entered the offices of Le Figaro and demanded the names of sources who had informed reporter Nazarine Ravaï of the forthcoming merger between supermarket giants Carrefour and Promodès; they reportedly also showed her a list of her recent phone calls.[15]  Levet’s case went to trial, and resulted in no conviction; Le Figaro’s editors threw out the COB’s agents, and no charges were filed.

That the charge of diffusing false news was prosecuted at all, given the politicised nature of the French judicial system, raises the possibility of a political decision at a high level.  So does the fact that at least one reporter working on the case encountered unusually harsh pressures from high police officials to drop the story.[16]  Such tactics are typically reserved for cases in which the interests of the State are directly involved, and pose the question of what those interests might be.  There is no shortage of possible answers.  The police may have feared that media investigations would interfere with their own attempts to verify the terrorist theory.  Conversely, higher authorities may have decided that it was “socially less dangerous to designate [as responsible] the security chiefs of a business” than to evoke Islamic terrorism in France, as Marc Mennessier’s lawyer, Christian Etelin, contends.[17] 

Such tactics may backfire, of course, serving only to convince reporters that they are close to hidden truths.  That is apparently what happened here: At the end of January, Casteret and Messonnier published separate but coordinated reports in L'Express and Le Figaro, charging that the official investigations of the affair had overlooked numerous leads that add up to the possibility that AZF was indeeed deliberately destroyed.  

But intimidating the media can indeed convince many publishers, editors and reporters that there are safer ways of doing their work than investigating powerful adversaries.  That is what occurred in the United States in the early 1980s, when the glamour of Watergate wore away, and public and judicial support for investigators waned.  It is also what happened in Italy at the end of the Manu Pulite era, which Gonin witnessed directly.  He sees a similar trend in France:  “At a given moment, the public gets fed up [with the media].  Look at all the opinion surveys – we are less highly regarded than politicians.    We’re at the service of the public, we’re less manipulated than before, and the public doesn’t respect us any more for that.”

We are looking here at a general dynamic of investigative reporting movements, well-documented by historians of journalism (and of the Muckraking movement of the early 20th century in particular).  The experience of U.S. journalists following Watergate suggests that when hostile reaction to investigative work begins, it is crucial to inventory best practices, and to undertake education of reporters and editors, in a time when errors can become very costly.[18]    In the U.S., that role was filled by Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc., through its manuals and conferences.[19]  To date, no organization has assumed that responsibility in France.  As they say in Paris, “C’est dommage.”


[1] Marc Mennessier, « EXPLOSION : L'autopsie d'un Francais d'origine tunisienne, vetu de quatre epaisseurs de sous-vetements, relance l'enquete; Toulouse : la police explore la piste J. » Le Figaro, Oct. 4, 2001.
Tribunal de Grande Instance de Toulouse, Jugement correctionnel du: 27 juin 2002, N° 872/02.
The defendants have appealed, and the case may be re-judged as soon as September 2002.  The publishers of the journals were each ordered to pay fines of 7500 Euros, plus smaller fines to the Association des Français Musulmans de Portet sur Garonne.  Mennessier and Heriot were fined 2500 euros.  The publishers also were ordered conjointly to pay damages and interests of 7500 euros to each of Hassan J.’s seven surviving family members, 3000 euros to an imam cited in their articles, and 750 euros to the Association des Français Musulmans de Portet sur Garonne.
Interview by telephone with Jean-Marc Gonin, general news director of Le Figaro, August 22, 2002.
[5] Yves-Claude Loirca, “Diffamation et fausses nouvelles.”  Le Journaliste, 2ème trimestre 2002, p. 8.
[6] For a brief history of this movement in English, see Mark Hunter, « The Rise of the Fouille-Merdes. » Columbia Journalism Review, Nov.-Dec. 1995, or   A more detailed history (in French) is in Mark Hunter, Le Journalisme d’investigation en France et aux Etats-Unis.  Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, coll. Que sais-je ?, 1997.
Roland Dumas, “Hitler hante les esprits, mais il faut garder la tête froide, » Le Figaro, 15 février 2000.
This information is derived from a private conversation with the reporter mentioned ; details have been obscured to protect his privacy.
[9] Anne Marie-Casteret, «Explosion à l’usine AZF : Les pistes inexplorées. »  L’Express, 20 décembre 2001 (via internet).
[10] However, Violet subsequently published a biography of Delon.   For details on both these cases, see Mark Hunter, « France : Judicial Repression. » Columbia Journalism Review, March-April 1999, or
The text is Article 27 of the “Loi du 29 juillet 1881”, modified by the “Ordonnance du 6 mai 1944”.
Op. cit., Tribunal de Grande Instance de Toulouse, p. 22.
[13] Op. cit., interview.
[14] Op. cit., Tribunal de Grande Instance de Toulouse, p. 22.[15] These cases were reported in Le Canard enchaîné of 29 décembre 1999; via Internet,
Information derived from a private conversation with the reporter concerned.
Christian Etelin, « Hors vérité officielle, pas de journalisme ? » Le journaliste, 2ème trimestre 2002, p. 9.
The cost of reportorial errors for the U.S. media following Watergate is detailed in  Le Journalisme d’investigation en France et aux Etats-Unis, op. cit. 
See Mark Hunter, « Moment of Truth at IRE. » Columbia Journalism Review, July/August 1996, or

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