French politicians and newspapers reacted with shock and consternation yesterday to the brutal pre-dawn arrest of a senior newspaper executive over a relatively trivial libel case.
Vittorio de Filippis, former publisher of the centre-left newspaper, Libération, was insulted and handcuffed in front of his children by police who raided his home near Paris at 6.30am. He was later strip-searched twice. One of the officers called M. de Filippis "worse than scum", using the word, racaille, once used by President Nicolas Sarkozy to describe multi-racial youth gangs.
M. de Filippis, now in charge of the development of the paper, was wanted for questioning on a relatively trivial and technical accusation of defamation for a comment left by a reader on the newspaper's website two years ago. It is thought to be unprecedented for a senior newspaper executive, or any journalist, to be arrested in such a brutal way, The incident caused a similar sort of furore in France over the weekend as the uproar in Britain over the arrest of the Conservative immigration spokesman, Damian Green, by police investigating government leaks.
M. de Filippis said yesterday that after his "totally humiliating" experience, he wondered, "How the police treat foreigners without papers who don't speak French". Politicians, including a spokesman for President Sarkozy's centre-right party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire called for a high-level investigation of the "surreal" and "utterly disproportionate" treatment of the senior journalist.
The incident is embarrassing for President Sarkozy who recently inaugurated discussions and investigations on the financial and political status of the press in France. Opposition politicians said that the incident, especially the use of the word racaille, suggested some French police officers felt that, with M. Sarkozy in power, they could get away with almost anything.
Police refused to comment officially but one officer told the newspaper Le Monde that M. de Filippis had failed to respond to a summons and had "spoken arrogantly" to the arresting officers. M. de Filippis said he merely objected to a pre-dawn raid and being handcuffed in front of his sons, aged 10 and 14. The response from one officer, he said, was, "You are worse than scum".
After his arrest, M. de Filippis was questioned by a magistrate, and placed under formal investigation. Under French law, the publisher of a newspaper is responsible for any article thought to be libellous. The writer of the article has only a secondary responsibility.
It has not yet been established whether French newspaper executives are legally responsible for readers' comments left on their websites. The complaint was brought by an internet businessman, Xavier Niel, who has lost two similar cases against Libération.Reuse content