A positive aspect to the furore after the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn on charges including attempted rape was the revelation of the workings of the French media. These include the extreme personalization of politics (leader writers deplore this while pursuing their own causes); the continuity between communications advisers and journalists when a “client” fits mainstream media ideology; and the close ties, always condemned but never severed, between the press and government. The DSK affair also revealed the class reflexes that move editorial writers, on the top rungs of the social ladder, when the powerful fall. The misfortunes of the weak are too banal to be news.
A couple of months before, French television had shown a pleasant domestic scene: DSK, head of the International Monetary Fund, grilling a steak in his Washington DC home while his wife, former journalist Anne Sinclair, made a salad; almost like any other French couple. This picture was fabricated for a documentary on March 13 on the pay TV channel Canal+ , by KM Productions, a company belonging to Renaud Le Van Kim. He had staged mega-productions for Nicolas Sarkozy as a contestant for the leadership of the ruling UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire) in 2004.
The 24 February issue of Paris Match ran six pages on the cosy family: DSK and his wife as a “close couple, despite the turbulence of 2008”, a reference to his affair with senior IMF economist Piroska Nagy. “I believe that Mr Strauss-Kahn abused his position in the manner in which he got to me,” Nagy wrote in October 2008, describing him as “a man with a problem that may make him ill-equipped to lead an institution where women work under his command”. A day earlier the Journal du Dimanche headline had read “We must save the good soldier DSK” (he had denied having abused his position). Elle published an article on Anne Sinclair as the admirable wife supporting her husband in his ordeal. VSD magazine, revamped by Jacques S?gu?la, vice-president of the communications consultancy Havas, devoted its lead article to the couple’s counter-attack, before reporting on DSK’s triumphal tour of Africa.
Spin doctor extraordinaire
DSK brought his bomb disposal expert, Ramzi Khiroun, to Washington. Khiroun, 39, was born in Sarcelles (outside Paris) where DSK was deputy mayor. He is spokesman for the Lagard?re media group (which owns the radio station Europe 1, Journal du Dimanche, Paris Match and Elle), and is a consultant for Euro RSCG, an advertising agency owned by magnate Vincent Bollor?. DSK’s chief spin doctors work there: Gilles Finchelstein, CEO of the Jean Jaur?s Foundation, a socialist thinktank and research body, Anne Hommel, his press attach?, and St?phane Fouks, co-president of Euro RSCG Worldwide. Khiroun is at the crossroads between politics, communications and media. His role explains why bad behaviour has been voluntarily hushed up under a code of omert?.
Khiroun met DSK in 1999 when DSK was forced to resign from his position as finance minister in the Jospin government because of several scandals (he was later cleared of involvement in these): fake jobs in the Mutuelle Nationale des Etudiants de France, the students’ social security body; the M?ry cassette tape affair, implicating the former president Jacques Chirac in illegal party funding. Khiroun also acted as chauffeur and bodyguard, and whisked his boss away from photographers during investigations, on corruption charges, by Judge Eva Joly. Later he is alleged to have suppressed the accusations of a journalist, Tristane Banon, who threatened to press charges against DSK for sexual harassment in 2002.
Banon had been invited to take part in a television show by Thierry Ardisson, a presenter on the Paris Premi?re channel, in 2007 and “helped by booze”, she bantered about a misadventure with DSK and claimed to have been subjected to something midway between aggression and sexual harassment. When the programme was broadcast, the name of DSK, whom she called a “rutting chimpanzee”, was beeped out; her story was scrapped at the last minute from another programme on France 3. Since Banon hadn’t dared press charges, she was suspected of having invented the story, which is what Khiroun claimed.
After the New York arrest, it took the French media four days to understand, under pressure from the US and UK press, that they might be held liable. In 2007, Jean Quatremer, a journalist on European affairs at the leftwing daily Lib?ration, had blogged: “The only real problem with Strauss-Kahn is his relationship with women. He is so insistent that he borders on harassment. His failing is well known by the media but nobody talks about it (we’re in France).” These comments did not appear in Lib?ration’s print edition, and Quatremer recalls that “Ramzi Khiroun dared to ask me to remove that post from my blog so as not to ‘harm Dominique’.”
Interviewed on France Info radio, Laurent Joffrin, then director of Lib?ration, first claimed that accusing the French press of connivance was “offensive, unjust and shameful” (May 18) before reluctantly admitting the next day on France 2 television that he had closed his eyes to claims about harassment. “There should have been a collective condemnation. I admit that I neglected this matter.” Joffrin, like many others, used privacy laws to justify his attitude. Journalist Nicolas Beau said: “If that rule had been applied in the profession for news concerning ordinary citizens, then many of us would be made redundant”.
Connivance between political leaders and editors explains media discretion far more than respect for the presumption of innocence or fear of legal proceedings. The magazine Marianne revealed on May 21 that four senior staff members got important information about the 2012 French presidential campaign during a lunch with DSK on April 29, but concealed this from readers. One explained: “We all made a commitment to say nothing about the discussions that had taken place, and we respected that. Obviously the events in New York have freed us from that commitment, and even obliged us to publish the content of that conversation in order to shed light on DSK’s personality.” Close contact with an eminent politician means that journalists have to conceal sensitive information, but as soon as the person falls from presidential candidate to mere defendant, the duty to inform comes to the fore.
Charmed inner circle
Political communication in France is a very small closed circle. Journalists infringing Khiroun’s restrictions risk losing access to the many Parti Socialiste (PS) figures handled by Euro RSCG. Since Martine Aubry took over as party secretary in November 2008, a former associate director of Euro RSCG has managed the party’s communications. Aubry occasionally uses the services of advertising executive Claude Posternak, who was communications adviser to Michel Rocard, prime minister under Mitterrand. Fran?ois Hollande, former PS leader and a contender for the party leadership, is so concerned with transforming his image from plump and jovial to slim and serious that he consults G?rard Le Gall, once opinion poll advisor to Lionel Jospin. The co-chairman of Euro RSCG Worldwide, St?phane Fouks, advises his old friend Manuel Valls, the deputy-mayor of Evry and another potential candidate in the PS primaries. The Socialist chairman of the Seine-Saint-Denis departmental council, Claude Bartolone, who last April claimed that DSK had been “framed” by Russian president Vladimir Putin, uses St?phane Schmaltz, a Euro RSCG partner. And now the agency has obtained a contract from another Socialist candidate, Arnaud Montebourg, deputy for Sa?ne-et-Loire.
These PS ties with the company existed during Jospin’s 2002 election campaign (in which he was defeated). DSK’s candidature also benefitted from support from media owned by the Lagard?re group (the key player was Khiroun). At a general meeting of the Lagard?re group on 11 May, it was asked whether the Porsche DSK was seen in, in Paris (causing a “bling” furore in France), was a company car used by Khiroun. Arnaud Lagard?re confirmed this implicitly, adding: “Ramzi and I are very close. Perhaps all of this will protect me a little from criticisms of being too close to Nicolas Sarkozy.” Did Lagard?re genuinely bet on the electoral success of DSK, to whom the Lagard?re group owes its management of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS) ? or was his group’s favourable media coverage given the consent of Lagard?re’s close friend Sarkozy? (As minister for the economy, finance and industry when the Franco-German-Spanish consortium EADS was established in 1999, Strauss-Kahn drew up a shareholders’ agreement in which the operational management of the state-owned company A?rospatiale (the French component of EADS) went to Lagard?re, conferring tax exemptions on the group amongst other advantages.)
Paris Match, another Lagard?re-owned magazine, had an IFOP survey in July 2009 showing that DSK was the “French people’s favourite personality”. This 20 February, the Journal du Dimanche headline was “All Set for 2012”, with front-page photographs of Sarkozy and his potential rival, DSK. In March, a sub-editor from the paper confided: “Nicolas Sarkozy wants Dominique Strauss-Kahn to be the PS contender because he is convinced that he can beat him.”
Khiroun has regular contacts with Jean-Pierre Elkabbach, Europe 1’s morning interviewer, as well as with Olivier Jay, editorial director of the Journal du Dimanche and his counterpart on Paris Match, Olivier Royant.
According to an article in Le Monde on April 26, two Paris Match journalists who were trying to get answers about business intermediary Alexandre Djouhri, and his dealings with Arnaud Lagard?re, Serge Dassault and DSK, were censured after a spokesman from the Lagard?re group intervened. How can journalists investigate a politician known to have such powerful media support?
After the New York arrest, the PS bosses showed their solidarity with their comrade. The pictures of DSK leaving the New York police precinct in handcuffs “shattered” Martine Aubry, the Socialist mayor of Evry Manuel Valls spoke of “unspeakable cruelty” and the former justice minister Robert Badinter mentioned “media lynching”. The anger was based on the failure to respect the 2000 Guigou law on the presumption of innocence. But that law was ignored when the defendants in the Outreau case (a high-profile case in 2004 in which 18 people from Outreau in northern France were falsely accused of sexually abusing children and running a paedophile network) were shown handcuffed between two gendarmes in 2002; later they were acquitted. In 2003 Abderrezak Besseghir, a baggage handler at Roissy airport, was accused of being a terrorist, vilified, and imprisoned under pressure from journalists -before being found innocent.
Translated by Krystyna Horko
Marie B?nilde is a journalist and author of On ach?te bien les cerveaux: la publicit? et les m?dias, Raisons d’Agir, Paris, 2007.
This article appears in the June edition of the excellent monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features one or two articles from LMD every month.