Depending on how you feel about him – and opinions are divided – Edwy Plenel has the looks and aura of Joseph Stalin or Charlie Chaplin.
The 60-year-old digital newspaper director with a leftist past, a nose for a story and a talent for making journalism profitable is at the origin of two important events this week: hearings at the National Assembly into the “Cahuzac affair” and the questioning in Paris of International Monetary Fund director Christine Lagarde regarding the €400 million settlement she facilitated for a friend of the former president, Nicolas Sarkozy.
Plenel had just received a summons to testify before the parliamentary commission of inquiry when I met him at the headquarters of Mediapart, the website he co-founded in 2008. He and reporter Fabrice Arfi will be the first to testify tomorrow morning. “We’re going to push them to hold real hearings – something they’re not used to,” Plenel says with satisfaction. The French ministers of the economy, the interior and justice will be the final witnesses, several months hence.
For Plenel, the Jérôme Cahuzac affair, in which Mediapart revealed that the socialist minister of the budget had stashed at least €600,000 in Switzerland and Singapore, was about "the struggle of the little media David against all the Goliaths".
When the Cahuzac bomb exploded last December, Mediapart was denounced by fellow journalists, and virtually the entire political class. But Plenel’s website was proven right, and Cahuzac resigned three months later, dealing a terrible blow to the Hollande administration.
Plenel's detractors, on left and right, call him a "vigilante" and a fouille-merde (shit-digger).
As Le Monde newspaper's police reporter in the 1980s, he uncovered some of the biggest scandals of François Mitterrand's presidency: the framing of three Irish people in Vincennes, and the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior . Mitterrand had Plenel's phone tapped and the presidential entourage spread the rumour that he was a CIA agent.
Ironically, for a man who was, like many French intellectuals in the 1970s, a Trotskyist, Plenel's heros are historic American figures: the newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, the philosopher John Dewey and the sociologist Robert Ezra Park.
He's proud that his original "political family" denounced the Soviet Gulag, the Moscow trials and "imposture in the name of socialism or communism". He says he transformed the commitment of his youth into a commitment to journalism.
“When François Hollande was elected,” Plenel recalls, “I told my team, ‘You’ll see. The reaction is much more violent if you publish a scandal about the left.’ Everyone expects the right to have shady dealings. But the left says, ‘I am moral. I am good. I am virtue.’
“Whatever our personal politics, journalists know that no political family has a monopoly on morality or virtue.”
Lagarde is expected to be questioned on Thursday by the Court of the Republic, a special, closed-door jurisdiction for high-ranking officials.
Her future at the IMF may depend on how the news is conveyed to its board. "Will they use the hard or soft translation of mise en examen ?" Plenel asks, predicting the outcome.
“Will they be told she’s been ‘charged’ with misappropriating public funds, or merely ‘placed under investigation’?”
As finance minister, Lagarde ordered a private arbitrage – Plenel believes on Sarkozy’s orders – in the case pitting the millionaire politician and ex-convict Bernard Tapie and a state-owned bank.
Evidence unearthed by Mediapart indicates Lagarde ignored the advice of staff at the ministry, and vastly overestimated the tax Tapie would pay on the settlement.
“The question is why did Sarkozy need to give this present to Bernard Tapie?” says Plenel. “Why? Why?”
Other Mediapart scoops include the Karachi affair, concerning the deaths of 11 Frenchmen in a bombing because, Mediapart alleges, rival French politicians shortchanged Pakistani arms dealers on their commissions; a Libyan document which Plenel says proves the Gadafy regime financed Sarkozy's first presidential campaign; and the Bettencourt scandal, which recently led to the mise en examen of Sarkozy for allegedly exploiting the weakness of an ageing billionairess.
Mediapart had spent the best part of its €5.7 million in seed money when it broke the Bettencourt story in 2010. The website, which charges €9 per month, became a financial success. It now has 75,000 subscribers and three million monthly visitors. Its turnover last year was €6 million and it has 46 employees.
Plenel rails against free newspapers and ‘infotainment’. “We wanted to prove that our profession has value, that you can make money in journalism,” he says.
Opportunity of internet
"Contrary to the vulgate, the internet is not destroying journalism." He quotes Hubert Beuve-Méry, founder of Le Monde , which employed Plenel for 25 years, including eight as editor-in-chief: "I will force them to read me."
A good newspaper is one you need to read, even if you don’t share its positions.