France's most prestigious newspaper, Le Monde, is the latest target in the ongoing battle to control the scandal over former Central African Emperor Jean Bedel Bokassa's alleged multiple gifts of diamonds to President Valery Giscard d'Estaing and members of his family.
On Nov. 7, French Justice Minister Alain Peyrefitte filed charges against Le Monde's director, Jacques Fauvet, and against the chief editorial writer Philippe Boucher for allegedly casting doubt on the credibility and independence of france's judiciary.
The indictment cites five articles published over a three- year period, which Mr. Peyrefitte insists, committed "outrage" against French magistrates. If convicted under little- known Article 226 of France's penal code, which has been applied only once since 1971, the two newsmen could face up to six months in prison and up to $15,000 in fines and penalties.
By not suing under laws governing law governing news reporting, Mr. Peyrefitte avoided the issue of whether the allegations in the editorials in question were true, and concentrated instead on the impact Le Monde's reporting was likely to have on the way Frenchmen view their judicial establishment.
The reaction to the case so far has been overwhelmingly critical of the government. Both associations representing the French judiciary have denounced Mr. Peyrefitte's action publicly and have supported Le Monde. Although the articles cited touch on a wide range of subjects, the real issue seems unquestionably to be Le Monde's reporting of recent attempts to conceal information concerning the Bokassa diamonds.
Bokassa, who is being kept under house arrest in the Ivory Coast, after having been dethroned by a French-engineered coup, claims that he gave Giscard repeated gifts of diamonds when Giscard was finance minister, and later when he became president. Giscard did not declare the diamonds to French customs or tax authorities or as state property. He has thus far avoided denying that he received the diamonds and has tried instead to maintain that a s president he does not have to answer charges that challenge his credibility as chief of state.
When the scandal first broke on Oct. 10,1979, Le Monde reported it extensively. In a fit of rage, Giscard called Le Monde's director, Jacques fauvet and screamed insults at him over the telephone. Shaken by the virulence of the attack, Fauvet published his now-famous reply in an open letter to Giscard warning: "when the chief of state loses his head, as you ahve done, then it is the state, itself, which is in danger."
Giscard's subsequent attempts to remain aloof were badly shaken on Sept. 9 this year, when Bokassa managed to elude his guards long enough to place a one-'our phone all to the french satirical magazine Le Canard Enchaine. Bokassa not only confirmed that he had given the diamonds to Giscard but also added that last spring he had managed to slip 147 documents to Roger Delpey, a French adventurer-turned-journalist.
When Mr. Depley returned to France last May, he was arrested on charges of allegedly aiding the Libyan government against France. The documents were seized. Delpey was turned over to a state security court, which effectively kept him from talking in public, while at the same time avoiding direct involvement of the conventional French judiciary in what began to seem to more and moe people like a cover-up.
No evidence was produced to show that Delpey had done anything wrong, and the magistrates investigating his case repeatedly refused to talk to relevant witnesses, including the two members of the Libyan Embassy with whom Delpey was said to have been in contact.
On Oct. 7, three documents touching on Bokassas's gift of diamonds to Giscard were removed from Delpey's dossier and turned orver to a lower court, with the official explanation that they wee irrelevant to the case.The maneuver allowed judicial authorities to keep the documents allegedly involving Giscard secret, while continuing with their prosecution of Delpey.
The only problem was that the transferral was illegal under French law, which maintains that if documents are irrelevant to the investigation for which they are requisitioned, they should be returned to their original owner, in this case Delpey.
The judicial irregularity is further compounded by the fact that although the lower court has had the documents for more than a month, it has shown no sign of filing any indictment relating to the documents against Delpey. Consequently under French law, the lower court has no legal right to hold on to the documents , particularly since Delpey's lawyers maintain they are crucial to his defense.
In still another technically illegal action, the Justice Ministry broke seals that had been placed on the documents without informing Delpey or making any provision to have him or his lawyers on hand to see that the documents were not tampered with. The seals reportedly were broken so that the documetns coul dbe scientifically analyzed in a last, desperate attempt to claim that Bokassa has simply handed Delpey pre-signed blank sheets of paper, which Delpey had then filled in himself. Chemical analysis revealted that Bokassa's signature crossed over the typing on the pages, proving that the documents were, in fact, genuine.
Le Monde's detailed, balanced, and unemotional reporting of the Delpey affair apparently has begun to worry Giscard, especially with presidential elections slated for next spring.
Ironically, no on expected the diamond scandal to have ane ffect on Giscard's chances. The attack on Le Monde is a different matter.
The paper, which many Parisians criticized in the past for being too stodgy, is enjoying a burst of popularity similar to the Washington Post's during the best days of Watergate. Jacques Fauvet and Philippe Boucher have become national heroes.
And Giscard may be finding out to his dismay that despite frequent boasts by French politicians to the contrary, a Watergate can be brought out in the open in France, too.