The affaire Bettencourt, which has become the affaire Woerth and which hides an affaire Sarkozy, reveals the state of France today. It reveals its inequalities and its social injustices, its institutional imbalances, the decline of its democracy and the abuses of uncontrolled presidential powers. It underlines everything that is intolerable and everything that must be changed. It also illustrates the usefulness, in a democracy, of a free press.
That is why, as soon as we at Mediapart published the first exclusive reports exposing the scandal on 16 June, it aroused among the French public such a passionate response, coming from a viewpoint that that demands high political standards and social equity, and which places its hopes in democracy.
Whenever the media reveal an ‘affair', a damaging scandal, and which subsequently continues to lead the news agenda over time, those whose habits, comforts and questionable dealings it rattles always come up with the same refrain. ‘Are there not more important subjects to report?' they ask. Those in high office are tempted to organise diversionary tactics, grabbing at other events riding in the news, like crime and safety, immigration and terrorism.
The Bettencourt revelations may keep coming, they argue, but meanwhile the rest of the world keeps on turning, with all its crises, threats and misery (which, of course, we at Mediapart continue to report upon to the best of our means). But the problems of the world can never provide an alibi for turning a blind eye to one's own behaviour. If the Bettencourt scandal has had such an impact on public opinion it is because of what it reveals about French society.
Far from sitting on the margins of the important events of our time, which essentially concern social and democratic issues, it brings them to the fore. The scandal has unmasked the imposture and the lies of a small world of oligarchs who, thanks to the favours of the political powers that they abuse, appropriate national riches for themselves, and who do so behind the backs of the vast majority - namely, the French people.
There is a crucial lesson to be learnt from the Bettencourt scandal, and it is for this reason that those in high places have tried, and continue to try, to cover it up. ‘A reliable and insolent teller of truths' was how the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson described Millennium, the investigative magazine that gave its name to his trilogy. Larsson's hero, Mikael Blomkvist, is a stubborn and unbowed journalist, untiring in his efforts to expose the hidden side of the powerful and the arrogant, those for whom money is the only value. Behind the story are the professional and democratic ideals of a free press and of true investigative journalism.
At Mediapart we do not take ourselves for heroes - but we do share these ideals, along with those other media that are free of any political or financial subservience. Indeed, they are part of a long heritage. As the French author, poet and essayist Charles Péguy (1873-1914), an inspirational figure for Hubert Beuve-Méry, founder of Le Monde, once wrote: ‘Tell the truth, nothing but the truth, tell simply the simple truth, boringly the boring truth and sadly the sad truth.'
Such a rigid professional approach is also a requirement of democracy. It drives an incessant search of what is happening, of those issues that create something from what they reveal, that cause a rupture, that force attention upon the thing that nobody saw - or wanted to see. Arising out of what could be described as an unforeseeable accident - the secret tape recordings of Liliane Bettencourt's butler Pascal Bonnefoy - what has become the Bettencourt affair falls into this same category of news stories.
The disclosure of the tapes by Mediapart, a decision that has been vindicated by the law courts despite an attempt to gag them on the grounds of invasion of privacy, illustrates the need for a free press as a part of the democratic process. For it can happen that news stories that disturb are smothered, or diverted, not only because of pressure and threats but, more often, because of the weaknesses and fragility of the democratic workings of news gathering.
Our professional culture, its vitality and its audacity, depend upon many factors, such as the structure of media companies, the independence or subservience of their management, the distances they maintain - or do not - with the worlds within worlds beyond journalism. If ever a fresh example was needed of the necessity to re-define the foundations of the freedom of journalism in France, the Bettencourt affair provides it in the most dramatic manner.
In article 5 of the French constitution, which defines the president's institutional role, it states: 'The President of the Republic shall ensure due respect for the Constitution. He shall ensure, by his arbitration, the proper functioning of the public authorities and the continuity of the State.' Article 1 of the constitution establishes that France is a 'democratic and social' republic which 'ensures the equality before the law of every citizen, without distinction'. If ever those in high political office succeed in smothering the continuing judicial process of the Bettencourt affair, or if they manage to move it off the political agenda, then the scandal will serve as a civic lesson, allowing each citizen to measure the distance that separates our current political system from important republican principles.
If, on the other hand, the judicial and political developments of the Bettencourt affair are allowed to unfold unfettered, it could become the first step towards a renewal of values, returning life and force to the republican motto 'liberty, equality, fraternity'.