PARIS — Press freedom advocates have criticized the government of French President Emmanuel Macron for attempting a warrantless search of an investigative news outlet days after it published material potentially damaging to Macron.
Representatives of the Paris prosecutor, along with police officers, arrived Monday morning at the headquarters of Mediapart alleging that the news organization’s reporting had violated the privacy of a former Macron aide.
Mediapart refused the search on the grounds that the officers did not have a warrant, and it complained that the attempt was a politically motivated effort to uncover its sources.
“This raid is at once illegal and violent,” Mediapart editor Edwy Plenel said in an interview. “It’s an abuse of power, which violates the liberty of the press.”
The Paris prosecutor is an executive appointee and ultimately answers to the president. Macron picked the new prosecutor, Rémy Heitz, in October.
Heitz’s office did not respond to request for comment. The Elysee Palace declined to comment on “an ongoing investigation.”
Advocates of independent media offered their support. “It is vital for a free press that journalists be able to protect confidential sources,” Robert Mahoney, the deputy executive director of Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement. “Public prosecutors have no business poking around in newsrooms.”
Christophe Deloire, secretary general of Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, tweeted: “Such an attempt to undermine sources’ secrecy by prosecutors accompanied by police officers is an unacceptable pressure on investigative journalism. Stop violations of freedom of the press!”
Mediapart last week published the results of a multi-month investigation into the “Benalla affair” — a political controversy that has been a recurring problem for Macron.
Alexandre Benalla, one of the president’s confidants and bodyguards, was caught on camera in May beating two labor protesters while impersonating a police officer.
Macron didn’t fire Benalla until the summer, after the controversy erupted, and explanations from the Elysee Palace shifted considerably, prompting a parliamentary inquiry into a possible coverup. Macron’s government survived two separate votes of no confidence in July, but the Benalla episode dealt a devastating blow to Macron’s approval ratings, which have yet to fully recover.
The Mediapart report brought new headaches for the president in the form of previously undisclosed recordings purportedly of Benalla and Vincent Crase, a former head of security for Macron’s party, La République en Marche.
“So the ‘boss’ is supporting us?” the man identified as Crase asks on the tape.
“Ah, well, he’s doing more than supporting us,” the person identified as Benalla replies. “He’s like a madman. [. . . ] And he said just like that, he said, he told me, ‘You’re going to eat them alive. You’re stronger than them.’ ”
In Mediapart’s telling, this was further evidence of a coverup by Macron.
“He’s been covering for Benalla from the beginning, it’s very simple,” Plenel told The Washington Post. “He’s protecting him.”
The Mediapart investigation further suggested that Benalla and Crase violated judicial orders by meeting after they were formally placed under investigation. The investigation also reported that Benalla was “personally involved” during his time at the Elysee with the negotiation of a security contract with a Russian oligarch linked to Vladimir Putin.
The confrontation between Mediapart and prosecutors brought to a boiling point long-simmering tensions between the media and the Macron administration.
The French president has given few news conferences and has granted interviews only rarely. He moved the press room out of the Elysee Palace. He accused the media of not looking for the truth in the Benalla affair, and he signed a law against fake news — a move many journalists decried as dangerous for free speech.
The relationship between the media and those in power in France is complicated, though. Journalists often allow government and nongovernment sources to review quotes before publication, and newspapers and magazines accept hundreds of millions of euros in government subsidies every year. (Digital-only Mediapart is funded by subscriptions.)
“They can criticize the government, of course, but there is still a space of complicity with the institutions,” said Daniel Schneidermann, a French media analyst and a columnist for Libération. “The French press respect French institutions. They can be very violent against a particular government or law, etcetera, but there is a general accord with the institutions.”
Le Monde editor Jérôme Fenoglio dismissed concerns about state support — which has existed in various forms, on and off, for centuries and, in its postwar iteration, stems from the idea that a healthy democracy should encourage a diversity of opinion.
Most government subsidies today come in the form of discounted postal rates for distributing print copies to subscribers, Fenoglio said. Le Monde also received 2.6 million euros, about $2.9 million, in direct aid in 2016, a stipend used for digital development, among other things.
“I know that seen from overseas, this can seem a little strange,” Fenoglio said. “It’s a French particularity. But to say it’s a threat to the liberty of the press? . . . It has no impact whatsoever on the right to inform.”
It was Le Monde that broke the Benalla story last July.
Macron perhaps assumed too much complicity when last week he suggested to a small coterie of journalists invited for coffee at the Elysee that the state “finance structures that assure neutrality.” He was widely condemned by French media.
“It’s a little sad,” Fenoglio said. “This kind of false vision of journalism at the head of state.”