Area: 551,500 sq. km
Population: 61,226,063
Language: French
Head of state: President Nicolas Sarkozy

Nicolas Sarkozy's election as president in May 2007 substantially affected relations between government and media, but changes were few in the legal field and raids on media premises and arrests and questioning of journalists continued.

French journalists were unsure how to respond to new President Nicolas Sarkozy's attitude to the media. Some were charmed by the unusual informality with a head of state that he offered but others were concerned about his ties to powerful media proprietors. As soon as he took office on 16 May 2007, the media was overwhelmed by his crowded agenda. "We can't keep up. We need more staff to cover his movements," one reporter assigned to the Elysée presidential palace told Reporters Without Borders. Many were glad that at last "something is happening at the Elysée." But his close friendship with the country's principle media owners greatly worried journalists and their trade unions, who stressed this could seriously harm media diversity.

The killing by Le Journal du Dimanche of a story that Sarkozy's then-wife Cécilia had not voted in the 6 May second round of the presidential election fed this concern. The editors of the weekly paper, owned by the group headed by Arnaud Lagardère, whom Sarkozy has called "a brother," denied giving in to pressure but admitted "some phone calls" had been received claiming the news was "very private and personal." Reporters Without Borders joined with Journal du Dimanche staff in urging journalists to resist all forms of pressure. A month later, the organisation supported journalists from 27 media outlets in a call to Sarkozy to ensure the independence of the media.

Sources badly protected

The judiciary continued its failure to fully respect the rights of the media in 2007. A judge visited the satirical weekly Le Canard enchaîné in May as part of legal action against it for "revealing legally confidential material" in the Clearstream corruption case involving top government officials. The paper's editor said staff were "alarmed" by the visit and had refused to allow the judge in, obliging him to leave. Four journalists from France 3 Sud and Le Midi Libre were summoned in May by police detectives in Montpellier who wanted to know who had told them about protests by wine growers associations.

Tension increased further on 5 December when the DST secret police broke into the home of freelance journalist Guillaume Dasquié at dawn and in front of his wife and children took him away for questioning. They also searched the house and seized documents. Dasquié was not freed until the following evening, after he had told police the name of one of his sources for an article about the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US.

Protection of journalistic sources is inadequate in France and Reporters Without Borders has made proposals to justice minister Rachida Dati to strengthen them, notably by inserting such protection into the press law and extending rules about searching media offices to cover the homes of freelance journalists. Sarkozy told journalists in January 2008 these changes would be done in the coming year.

Freedom of expression guaranteed by courts

A Paris court in March acquitted the managing editor of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in a lawsuit against him by the main Paris mosque, the French Union of Islamic Organisations (UOIF) and the Muslim World League for reprinting cartoons of the prophet Mohammed that first appeared in a Danish newspaper in 2005. The court said the reprinting was "within the permissible limits of freedom of expression." The UOIF appealed against the decision but in early 2008 the public prosecutor again called for acquittal.

A suspect was arrested in Morocco in January 2007 after confessing he had made death threats on an Internet website against Robert Redeker, who strongly criticised Islam in the daily Le Figaro three months earlier.

Progress in Polynesia

Progress was made in 2007 in the investigation of the 1997 disappearance in French Polynesia of Jean-Pascal Couraud (known as "JPK"), editor of the newspaper Nouvelles de Tahiti. The civil parties in the case managed to get a copy of the case-file, which strengthened their belief he had been murdered. His family's lawyer said the discovery of two documents about a bank account belonging to former French Polynesia President Gaston Flosse on the computer hard-drive of Gen. Philippe Rondot, a figure in the Clearstream scandal, showed that JPK had documents that were a threat. Justice minister Dati told JPK's support committee that her ministry would examine the case very carefully.


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