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Does the French media censor itself?

Bloggers complain that journalists show too much deference to "Sarkosconi."

A man rides past a newsstand with French daily newspapers in Nice, southeastern France, on Feb. 24, 2009. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

PARIS, France — Press reports speculating on the love lives of France’s president and first lady have raised eyebrows for a reason one might not expect: the possibility of government pressure on the press. 

Two journalists were fired after a story about the rumors of infidelity by the first couple was removed from the website of the weekly newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche, which is owned by a friend of President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The possibility of indirect pressures on the French press has in the past concerned advocacy groups, such as Reporters Without Borders, which ranks France 43rd in its index of press freedom in 175 countries.

But “there is something worse than censorship,” among journalists in France said Hicham Hamza. “It’s self-censorship.”

The 33-year-old freelance writer and video journalist who covers culture, politics and religious issues, said being a journalist in the current climate allowed him “to observe the mechanism of domination over the media” firsthand.

Such tensions are not new in France, where they provide fodder for a debate about the sometimes fraught relationship between politicians and the press. That relationship has come under particular strain during Sarkozy’s term. Bloggers have nicknamed the president, who has close personal ties to several French media magnates, “Czarkozy” and “Sarkosconi.”

Government influence on the press has been an issue in France since before the affair rumors. In November 2008 example, the newspaper Le Figaro doctored a photo to remove an ostentatious diamond ring from the finger of Rachida Dati, the former justice minister. Two other oft-cited examples involve the president’s former wife, Cecilia. A former Paris Match editor lost his job after his magazine published a photo of the ex-wife with her new partner, displeasing Sarkozy. And Le Journal du Dimanche decided to kill a potentially embarrassing story that revealed the president’s former wife didn’t vote in the second round of the 2007 presidential election. At the time, Reporters Without Borders voiced its concern.

In France, “press are seen as people trying to stir the mud, or as people who are close to power, eating with politicians, disconnected from the people,” said Pascal Riche, the editor-in-chief and one of the founders of the French news website Rue89.