PARIS — Police summoned for questioning a senior correspondent for Le Monde who has written extensively on a corruption scandal involving French President Emmanuel Macron, the newspaper said Wednesday.
Ariane Chemin first broke the news in July 2018 of what has become known as the “Benalla affair,” a story about misconduct by a former Macron security aide that has fueled allegations of a coverup within the Elysee Palace.
France’s national security police division has demanded that Chemin appear for questioning on May 29, intensifying concerns about press freedoms in the Macron era. In February, representatives of the Paris prosecutor’s office raided — without a warrant — the offices of Mediapart, another news outlet, over its own Benalla reporting.
“We will obviously protect our information, and we express our concerns over this summoning,” Le Monde’s editorial director, Luc Bronner, wrote in a Wednesday editorial. “The public interest requires being able to investigate the entourage and links maintained by employees of the Elysee or Matignon,” he said, referring to the seats of the president and the prime minister.
Chemin is accused of “committing or attempting to commit the offense of revealing or disclosing, by any means, any information that could lead, directly or indirectly, to the identification of a person as a member of special forces,” according to a copy of the police summons shared with The Washington Post. The document also notes that if charged and convicted, she could face jail time.
The charges stem from an April 2016 law passed under the “state of emergency” that was enacted in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks that devastated France the year before. Chemin’s case marks the first time this specific provision has been used to target a journalist.
“It’s a very bad climate for the press,” Chemin said in an interview, noting that she has worked as a journalist since 1995. “This is the first time that the press is being treated in such a way.”
The French government disagreed, noting that the summons was “the normal functioning of justice” in keeping with the law. “French authorities are of course respectful of the freedom of the press,” said a French official, not authorized to speak publicly.
Alexandre Benalla, one of the president’s confidants and bodyguards at the time, was filmed impersonating a police officer and beating protesters during an annual labor demonstration in May 2018.
Macron didn’t fire Benalla until the summer, after news reports brought attention to the incident. The Macron administration has struggled ever since to escape the controversy.
As subsequent reports from Chemin and others have shown, the story was more than a security officer gone rogue. It has since expanded into a web of palace intrigue, complete with mysterious diplomatic passports held by Benalla, ties between the 27-year-old bodyguard and a Russian oligarch, and suspensions and resignations across the French government.
In his editorial, Bronner said police have targeted Le Monde’s reporting on a contract that Benalla allegedly negotiated between Chokri Wakrim, a former French air force officer, and Iskander Makhmudov, a Russian billionaire suspected of mafia ties. Public prosecutors have opened a corruption charge against Wakrim, who was suspended from the air force.
What fanned the flames of public fascination even further was that Wakrim’s wife, Marie-Elodie Poitout, was the head of security at Matignon. She was forced to resign in February after she admitted to having received Benalla at the couple’s Paris home after Macron had fired him.
Macron survived a vote of no confidence in July 2018, but his government was blasted by a Senate report released in February for its conduct in the Benalla affair.
For Chemin, the irony is that Macron, as a presidential contender in 2017, was the only major candidate who did not attack the media. But the Benalla affair changed his tone, she said, noting a July 2018 speech in which he said the press “does not seek the truth.”
She said the most shocking development was the allegation, which she reported in Le Monde, that one of Macron’s aides fabricated and circulated a fake video to distract attention from Benalla in the scandal’s first days, using images of unrelated individuals.
“The fact that you could have someone at the heart of power capable of doing this is, to me, unbelievable,” Chemin said.
Her summons marked the latest plot point in the rocky relationship between the president and the press corps, which often complains that Macron has constrained access to the executive branch.
This week, two regional newspapers boycotted a group interview with Macron after denying his request to allow him to review quotes before publication, a common practice in France.
In 2018, France ranked 32 out of 180 on the global press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.
“We are concerned by French police summoning journalists of different media outlets, including Le Monde, over their reports,” Gulnoza Said, the Europe and Central Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement.
“It is of vital importance for a free press that journalists are able to work uncensored while protecting confidentiality of their sources. French authorities should respect that and allow journalists to continue informing the French public about an important news story.”