As web challenges French leaders, they push back


POSTED: Sunday, December 13, 2009

PARIS—Dominique Broueilh is an unlikely cyberdelinquent, much less a political dissident. But earlier this year, Broueilh, 50, a homemaker and mother of three, found herself the target of a police investigation and a lawsuit from a French Cabinet official because of a comment she had posted online.

Broueilh had come upon a video of the politician, Nadine Morano, the secretary of state for the family, caught in a seeming untruth regarding her presence at a 2007 conference. “;Oh, the liar,”; Broueilh wrote, under a pseudonym, in comments below the clip.

The judicial police called in May on a weekday afternoon.

“;I said to myself, 'This must be a joke, it's not possible,”;' Broueilh recounted in a telephone interview from her home in St.-Paul-les-Dax, south of Bordeaux. “;It's ridiculous, after all.”;

The police said Morano, a combative politician and one of President Nicolas Sarkozy's closest allies, had subpoenaed Broueilh's Internet protocol address, obtained her identity and brought suit against her for “;public insult toward a member of the ministry,”; an offense punishable by a fine of up to $18,000.

Broueilh's is not an isolated case. Accustomed to a certain deference from citizens and the news media, members of France's political elite have been caught off guard by the cruder sensibilities and tabloid flavor of the online world. They have mounted a broad counteroffensive.

Politicians here have filed lawsuits like Morano's, organized in-house Internet surveillance teams—Sarkozy receives a nightly report detailing the day's online chatter—and have roundly denounced the Web as a breeding ground for disinformation.

“;The Internet is a danger for democracy,”; said Jean-Francois Cope, parliamentary chief for the governing party, the Union for a Popular Movement, in a recent radio interview.

More than anything, perhaps, the Internet has proved to be an exasperating source of embarrassment for this country's ruling class. In particular, a stream of widely popular online videos has repeatedly exposed French politicians at their least stately, including an apparently inebriated Morano—she has had more Web-based troubles than most—bumping and grinding with youthful male supporters.

Sarkozy was caught rebuking an ungrateful citizen; the interior minister cracked what may have been a racist joke; and the immigration minister, Eric Besson, grinning, made an obscene gesture to a cameraman. The clips have enthralled a French public accustomed to dignified leaders of a certain solemn good manners.

“;It's changing the relationship between the politician and his fellow citizen,”; said Frederic Dabi, a French commentator and public opinion director at the polling agency Ifop. The Internet is “;desanctifying”; a once untouchable political class, he said. “;We now have politicians who are scared.”;

“;I find we're entering a strange society,”; said Henri Guaino, one of Sarkozy's closest counselors, speaking on French radio in September. “;We can no longer say anything, we can no longer do anything. It's absolute transparency—it's the beginnings of totalitarianism!”; His comments came amid an uproar over the online video involving the interior minister, Brice Hortefeux, one of Sarkozy's closest friends.

Posted to the Web site of the newspaper Le Monde, the clip shows a dapper Hortefeux mingling with supporters at a political retreat. Referring to a young Arab man who appears with him in the frame, he says: “;There always has to be one. When there's one, it's OK. It's when there are a lot of them that there are problems.”;

The video, shot by a film crew from the French Senate's official television channel—they initially declined to broadcast it—brought accusations of racism and calls for Hortefeux's resignation. Fellow ministers and political allies sprang to his defense, claiming the sequence's Internet origins rendered it suspect, at best.

Last year, Sarkozy was himself caught in an Internet scandal, now infamous, after a camera crew filmed him snapping at a man who refused to shake his hand. His phrase—loosely and politely translated as “;Get out of here, you idiot!”;—quickly became a French cultural staple. First posted to the Web site of the newspaper Le Parisien, the video remains the site's most-viewed clip more than a year and a half later.

After that episode, rivals accused Sarkozy of denigrating the nation's highest office. Government officials deplored the Internet's intrusion into an affair that, they said, ought never to have been made public.

That indignation is hardly surprising. The French news media, like others in Europe, have long granted the political elite a number of journalistic accommodations, including the right to make prepublication revisions to interviews. In an interview soon after the handshaking incident, Le Parisien quoted a still nettled Sarkozy as saying, “;I would have done better not to respond.”; The paper later disclosed that presidential aides had inserted his expression of regret after the fact.

“;We used to feel that politicians were to be protected,”; said Daniel Carton, 59, a political journalist who has become an outspoken critic of what he calls complicity between French reporters and public officials. “;We kept these stories for ourselves,”; he said, “;to liven up dinner parties.”;

With the advent of the Internet, however, the news media have shown a growing willingness to expose French leaders' missteps. In particular, journalists have begun to break with one long-held unspoken rule: that everything uttered by a public official, with the exception of official pronouncements, is to remain off limits.

“;What we call 'the off' is disappearing,”; said Dabi, the political analyst. “;Now it's like what they say in American TV crime dramas: 'Anything you say can be used against you.”;'

But by all accounts, French politicians have yet to change their behavior. And the embarrassing videos and disparaging commentaries continue to crop up.

“;The Internet does not accept this arrogance,”; said Azouz Begag, a sociologist and a minister under former President Jacques Chirac. “;The Internet, it's political revenge.”;

As for Morano and Broueilh, the family affairs secretary dropped her lawsuit after it gained nationwide attention. It had spurred a torrent of online screeds, widespread derision and a rash of critical comments beneath the video in question—“;Oh, the liar”; popular among them. Morano declined to comment on the matter.

“;For the comments I left, she went too far,”; said Broueilh. “;The facts are there,”; she said. “;But I'll tell you, I don't leave my opinion on online videos any more.”;