President Nicolas Sarkozy has ordered a campaign of terror to punish those responsible for rumours which circulated last month on supposed tit-for-tat, extra-marital affairs by the French first couple.
Although the rumours have been discredited – and formally denied – the Elysée Palace is not prepared to let the matter rest. Two journalists working for the internet edition of the Journal du Dimanche – which repeated the rumours in a website blog – have already been fired, apparently under pressure from the Elysée.
A senior communications aide to the President said that he expects other people responsible for spreading the reports on the internet to be fired and possibly sued. Pierre Charon said: "We are going to war on these ignominious reports. We want to take things as far as we can to make sure this will never happen again. We want those who tried to spread fear to feel fear themselves."
The rumours that both the President and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, were having affairs began as unsubstantiated speculation on Twitter early last month. The rumours, still without substantiation, rapidly spread to a series of French blogs and then to parts of the international press.
In an interview with the internet newspaper Rue 89, Mr Charon suggested that the rumours might have been part of an "organised plot" by "financial interests". The fact that the rumours were enthusiastically taken up by parts of the British press seems to have persuaded the Elysée that they originated in the "Anglo-saxon" dominated financial markets – in other words that they were a conspiracy to start a Greek-style, financial speculation against French debt.
Such a claim is just as unsubstantiated, and baseless as the rumours themselves but is symptomatic of the paranoid and embattled mood now reigning in the Elysée Palace. President Sarkozy is reported to have ordered the police and intelligence services to try to track the reports to their original source.
The journalists' association at the Journal du Dimanche protested yesterday against what it called the "unprecedented bullying and inquisitorial" attitude of the Elysée. The journalists pointed out that JDD's editor had already formally apologised and that the rumours had never been published in the newspaper itself. The witch hunt was reaching, the journalists said, "stupefying and worrying" proportions.
President Sarkozy is said to have been especially outraged that the rumours appeared in a Journal du Dimanche blog. The newspaper is owned by a company controlled by his close friend, Arnaud Lagardère. The fact that the reports appeared on the JDD site provided the cover for the international press. Some foreign newspapers made it appear as if the reports had been published in the much-respected Journal du Dimanche itself.
The Lagardère group management has fired the writer of the blog and a manager of the company which operates the JDD website. The company, under pressure from the Elysée, has also said it has started legal action against "persons unknown" for "distributing falsehoods on the internet".
Mr Charon said the Elysée was determined to wage war on the spreaders of internet rumours. "We are saying we have had enough of the crap pedalled by these people. It goes beyond all reason."
There were reports last week that President Sarkozy blamed the rumours on his estranged former aide and justice minister, Rachida Dati. The Elysée Palace has since distanced itself from these reports. Ms Dati, now a member of the European Parliament, had her ministerial bodyguards and chauffeur-driven car cancelled last month.Reuse content