For Europe, WikiLeaks offers cyberdrama with Julian Assange as main character

Many European analysts question the motives of WikiLeaks' Julian Assange. Is he at the vanguard of a new era of transparency or a misguided rebel whose radical doctrine will curtail expression?

By , Staff writer

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    In this Oct. 23 photo, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, speaks during a news conference in London.
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The week of WikiLeaks has not exactly found the French intelligentsia dancing around a bonfire of support for Julian Assange and his disregard for state secrecy.

The Australian founder of WikiLeaks is in the midst of publicizing 251,287 secret US diplomatic cables dating from the past four decades. All of the cables were provided early to several news organizations, including Paris-based newspaper Le Monde.

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While many have accepted the leak as a forgone consequence of a global media age, some prominent French intellectuals are taking a step back and questioning the radical transparency that Mr. Assange says he supports.

Some here argue that the assault on US diplomatic secrets is part of a new “dictatorship of transparency” that actually limits expression. They say that diplomats may no longer speak so freely in such a blinding light.

"Let us not confuse a general outpouring with transparency,” said former Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, adding that the leaks harmed “the confidence” requisite among states.

Others felt WikiLeaks continues a trend toward a “citizenry that basks in conspiracy,” as Francoise Gaillard at the University of Paris put it, stoking a culture that revels in television shows such as "The X-Files" and “24.”

Yet much of the cable traffic appears to quash these notions. Indeed, one revelation from the trove of documents is that there just isn't that much back-room conspiring reflected in these embassy dispatches.

'Deciphering Sarkozy'

To be sure, Le Monde and other French publications have relished cables about President Nicolas Sarkozy.

According to the cables, the US sees him as “thin skinned, authoritarian” and "a pragmatist and an activist ... brilliant, impatient, undiplomatic, hard to predict, charming, innovative, and summit prone."

In 2006, while still interior minister, he chased his son’s pet rabbit around his office on the day he told US diplomats he was running for president (and six months before he told the French).

Dominique Moisi of the French Institute of International Relations points out that the French public has a similar view of Mr. Sarkozy as the US – and that “deciphering Sarkozy” has become an “obsession” here.

Reactions across Europe

Likewise, Italian novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco argues that much of what the US embassy in Rome said about Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi is a retread of what the Italian press (the Italian press not owned by Mr. Berlusconi) has written about him.

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Political writer Timothy Garton Ash, looking at US cables from London, revised his view of a US diplomatic corps “up several notches. For the most part, he says, they were doing a “proper job.”

Indeed, European capitals have been embarrassed but more dismissive of the cables.

Assange: transparency advocate or misguided rebel?

In France, many are instead more interested in Assange's ideology, and trying to sort out whether he’s the advanced guard of an era of useful public disclosure or a misguided rebel whose transparency will curtail expression. For example, will the leaks harm useful diplomacy in sensitive areas, such as human rights, that require secrecy?

How can one sort out conflicts and crisis without secrecy, asks Jean-Claude Monod at CNRS in Paris. He points to the late political philosopher Hannah Arendt arguing that one of the most difficult tasks of political thought in the 20th century was to find the right balance of a sphere of secrecy in democratic space, while warning "the light of publicity obscures everything.”

Rue 89, the Paris online daily, this week gave out the address of Assange’s blog journals at IQ.org, a website no longer functioning.

In one he writes that he wishes to “cast blessings on the profits and prophets of truth, on the liberators and martyrs of truth, on the Voltaires, Galileos, and Principias of truth, on the Gutenburgs, Marconis and Internets of truth, on those serial killers of delusion, those brutal, driven and obsessed miners of reality, smashing, smashing, smashing every rotten edifice until all is ruins and the seeds of the new.”

“I don’t know what to make of this guy,” says one editor of a Paris scholarly journal. “He scares me. But I hope WikiLeaks will be useful in the long term.”

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