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Repercussions of the Sarkozy/Bruni affair rumors

First rumors of infidelity in France's first marriage — President Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni  — occupied the attention of the press in France. Now they're following talk of accusations, criminal inquiries and lawsuits, as prosecutors and police have opened an investigation to find out who is responsible for spreading the rumors that Sarkozy and Bruni have been unfaithful to each other.

In the latest turn, Rachida Dati, the former justice minister, has found herself in the eye of the storm, denying unequivocally being the person behind rumors about the couple's alleged extra-marital affairs, which made international headlines, including in GlobalPost. The rumors linked the president to one of his ministers, while Bruni was linked to a singer named Benjamin Biolay, who has denied the rumors and, according to Le Parisien newpaper, is seeking 20,000 euros in damages from the broadcaster France 24 over the allegations.

Dati’s name surfaced after a satirical paper reported that her bodyguards and a chauffeur were relieved of their duties to her in part because of suspicions over her involvement in spreading the rumors. The weekly paper Le Canard Enchaine also reported that the former minister’s perks were removed around the same time she appeared on television and made critical statements about her party’s showing in the recent regional elections. Though satirical, Le Canard Enchaine is well read, respected and known for its insider knowledge.

Sarkozy’s lawyer, Thierry Herzog, said in an interview on RTL radio that the rumors about the first couple could be part of a greater plot to “destabilize the president of the republic and his wife.” Two reporters linked to the website of Le Journal du Dimanche (JDD), where the rumors about Sarkozy and Bruni were first repeated, have resigned, although there is wide speculation that they were forced out of the company. Their blog post has since been removed from JDD’s website, but the rumors were picked up by international media organizations. Though most French publications stayed away from the initial rumblings, they are reporting the aftermath and what many French readers have called a disproportionate reaction.

The media group that owns JDD filed a formal complaint against "persons unknown" which led to the judicial inquiry for “fraudulous introduction of information in a computer system,” according to news agency reports. The charge carries a penalty of five years imprisonment and a 75,000 euro fine, according to an article published on Le Monde's website.

The Lagardere Group, headed by the president’s friend Arnaud Lagardere, owns the media company that owns JDD. The paper has also issued a letter of apology to the first couple. But its journalists are concerned about the menacing tone of one presidential adviser, Pierre Charon, who said in an interview that appeared on the website of the Nouvel Observateur, a French weekly, that, “we want to get to the bottom of this …  As the expression goes, fear must change camps.” A journalists’ union at JDD said in a statement that the newspaper did not need to give in “to pressures or threats from wherever they come.”

Dati, now a member of the European Parliament, released a statement saying that she would consider taking legal action to clear her name. Her lawyer, George Kiejman, called the rumors “odious and unacceptable” in a radio interview. The international press was maligned by Sarkozy allies for spreading the rumors, while one minister congratulated the French press for showing restraint.

Some blame has fallen on the president himself for the uproar, since he opened up his personal life to the scrutiny of journalists in the first place at the height of his courtship to Bruni and is now playing the role of victim. An article in Le Monde pondered why the first couple didn’t themselves file a complaint for defamation, since the president, forced to comment during a press conference last month, dismissed the rumors as "idiotic" and a matter on which he did not have a fraction of a second to waste his time. The answer remained unclear.

For now, no one is escaping unscathed.