A terrorist's brother, trouble in paradise, and a kick

The trial of Abdelkader Merah caused controversy

Editorialistes (opinion writers) hold a major role in the French press. Here, in a regular column French journalist Paul de Villepin examines recent ‘hot topics’ which have featured in the columns of the country’s media this month.

November has been unseasonably warm both in terms of weather and news. As the days shorten, the brother of a terrorist is sentenced to 20 years in prison, the tax-heaven secrets of the super-rich are exposed and Patrice Evra’s kick (toward a supporter, not the ball) could be the last one of his football career.

In early November, France’s Paris’s top criminal court found Abdelkader Merah, 35, guilty of criminal terrorist conspiracy and sentenced him to 20 years in prison. The conspiracy in question was linked to the Toulouse scooter shootings in which seven people died in March 2012 – but at the same time the court found insufficient evidence to prove that Merah, who was said to have radicalised his brother Mohammed, 23, with extremist teachings, actually helped him carry out the attacks.

The verdict of a five-week stifling trial was intensely analysed in the French media. The first big terrorist trial since the new wave of attacks has been regarded as highly symbolic in the country.

When the trial started, Jacques Calmettes, a former head judge of the Bouche du Rhône criminal court, warned in the catholic daily La Croix that big trials never totally match the victims’ expectations. In an attempt to warn the victims he said: “If I were their lawyer, I would tell them not to expect and hope for the impossible to happen.” In the same vein, prominent French lawyer Alain Jakubowicz, explained that “it is not down to the justice system to solve the issue of Islamist terrorism”. Mr Jakubowicz – who is also a former president of anti-racist body LICRA – insisted that the role of the court is to ensure justice not to cure all of society’s evil.

Despite these warnings, the message was not heard loud and clear by the press and public. Willy Le Devin, in charge of the police and justice pages of the daily Libération, explained that Merah’s trial drifted to the general judgment of radical Islam. Le Devin regretted that everybody seemed to forget that Abdelkader was the brother of the terrorist, not the terrorist himself.

In the Bordeaux-based newspaper Sud Ouest, Bruno Dive was left sceptical about the judgment. He explained that the verdict was “mixed’ as Abdelkhader “was held responsible but not found guilty”.

Jean-Marcel Bouguereau compared Mehra’s trial to a corrida. According to La République des Pyrénées’ senior editorialist “every defendant has the right to be defended in court”. Bouguereau supported the decision of Eric Dupont-Moretti, Merah’s lawyer to have offered him legal representation even though the choice of the charismatic lawyer, nicknamed ‘acquittator’ for his record number of acquittals, sparked controversial reactions.

One, from Nicolas Demorrand – during an interview with Dupont-Moretti on public radio channel France Inter – was particularly scathing. The former executive editor of the daily Libération told the lawyer that some of the claims he made in court were “obscene”. Demorrand alluded to the lawyer’s argument that Merah’s mother “had lost a son too” [Mohammed Merah was shot by police, resisting arrest], a claim which elicited furious responses from the families of the victims. Similarly, Matthieu Suc, in a column published on the website of the independent investigative journal Médiapart, argued that “we have the right to be tired of Dupont-Moretti’s repeated wrath against the judiciary”.

 

Besides this hectic trial, opinion writers had a lot on their plate this month with the publication of the ‘Paradise Papers’. Le Monde – member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (CIJ) alongside 95 media partners such as The Guardian and The New-York Times – lifted the lid on the offshore activities of some of the world’s most powerful people and companies.

During the first week of November, the newspaper (which is published each afternoon with the following day’s date) published several articles and columns to shed the light on the obscure offshore empire of the ‘super-rich’.

On the day of the publication of the leak – a year after the Panama Papers and three after the Luxleaks (Luxembourg) scandal, editorial director Jerome Fenoglio penned a column advocating for change and increased transparency. He argued that “tax evasion put our democracies in danger”. Fenoglio insisted that tax optimisation could jeopardise tax equality, adding that “the investigation work carried out by Le Monde and its ICJ partners could contribute to raising awareness”.

The communist newspaper L’Humanité, whose slogan is ‘In an ideal world, L’Humanité would not exist’ referred to the controversy with the phrase ‘paradise of shame’. One of their columnists, Maurice Ulrich, denounced “the revolting practices and the cynical cupidity” of the super-rich.

It is worth noting that the Paradise Papers were not given the same coverage across the French media. While Le Monde and the public radio channels extensively covered the scandal, several daily papers such as Le Figaro, Le Parisien and Les Echos chose to barely write about it.

Jean-Marc Four, head of France-Inter, pointed out that there might be a link with press ownership in the country: Le Figaro being owned by Serge Dassault and Le Parisien and Les Echos by the richest person in France, Bernard Arnault – two famous business magnates both cited in the Paradise Papers leaks.

Four said these choices could simply be editorial, however he stated that the “Paradise Papers are a matter of moral principles”. In conclusion said Four, the former London correspondent for public service radio broadcaster Radio France, “raising those questions was part of the Press’s role”.

 

In a different field, football player Patrice Evra’s behaviour on the pitch provoked intense reactions among football fans and the sports press. The former Manchester United player, 36, defender for l’Olympique de Marseille aimed a high kick at one of a group of the club’s supporters who had called out insults during a warm-up session before a Europa League fixture against Vitória at the club’s ground in Portugal. The next day, L’Equipe – the popular devoted to sport – splashed with the headline ‘Intolerable’.

In a column headlined ‘old age is a shipwreck’ [reprising a quote from Chateaubriand and de Gaulle) the renowned football journalist Vincent Duluc said Evra was a ‘poor man’s Cantona’. Duluc also assumed that “the tremendous damage caused by his act will probably convince him not to make a comeback”.

 Since then, Evra has been sacked by Marseille for having “committed an irreparable act responding to provocations from a handful of individuals”.

The attitude of these Marseille fans was heavily criticised by flamboyant Canal + football pundit Menes, who regretted that no action was taken against them. On his blog, Menes said : “The club is way too lax with these fanatics”.

Eric Cantona meanwhile, speaking to a YouTube channel for Manchester United supporters, FullTimeDevils, has refused the comparison with Evra, saying: “I don’t think it’s really similar. He kicked one of his team’s supporters and I kicked a hooligan from the opposing team. It’s not the same.”

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