PARIS – A major French publishing house has decided not to publish a book criticizing King Mohammed VI of Morocco after its two authors were arrested last week in Paris and charged with blackmail and extortion on charges that they demanded 2 million euros, or about $ 2.3 million, to keep the unpublished book.
The latest developments in the affair have been compared by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius to a “bad movie”. The scandal, which raised questions of journalistic ethics here, however erupted less than a year later. relations between Morocco and France are improving following a long diplomatic dispute.
Lawyers on both sides are now waging a media battle to portray the perpetrators as either devious journalists interested only in leveraging their work to earn money, or as respected but fallible professionals who have fallen into a financially tempting trap. by Moroccan leaders.
The publishing house of Éditions du Seuil said Monday in a statement that its “relationship of trust” with the authors, Catherine Graciet and Eric Laurent, had been “dissolved” and that the publication of their book, initially scheduled for early 2016, could not go. before.
Mr. Laurent said he will try to publish the book elsewhere. The two perpetrators were arrested last week during a police infiltration operation after a meeting with a representative of Moroccan royalty at a luxury hotel in Paris.
The Moroccan authorities had filed a complaint for blackmail after a first meeting between Mr. Laurent and the royal representative, which resulted in the opening of a formal investigation in Paris.
Le Journal du Dimanche, which said it had obtained audio recordings made by the representative during the meetings and a document signed by the two journalists, reported Sunday that Mr. Laurent and Mrs. Graciet had undertaken to never write again about Morocco in exchange for 2 million euros.
They left the hotel with an advance of 40,000 euros, or about $ 45,000 each, the newspaper reported. The police, who were monitoring the meeting, then intervened to arrest them.
Lawyers for Me Laurent and Me Graciet confirmed in telephone interviews that their clients had signed the document and received the cash advance, but specified that the Journal du Dimanche had published truncated and misleading excerpts from the audio recordings made during interviews.
The two lawyers questioned the legal basis for the undercover operation and said they would try to get the case dismissed.
Mr. Laurent and Ms. Graciet are currently at large under judicial supervision and are prohibited from speaking to each other. Neither has denied having accepted a financial transaction.
But both say it was Mohammed VI’s representative, not them, who first offered to pay to keep the book a secret, dismissing accusations they were trying to blackmail the king and instead describing the deal as a “trap” that they fell. in.
Mr. Laurent, in a telephone interview from his law firm, said the idea of paying not to publish was first put forward by the Moroccan representative, a lawyer named Hicham Naciri, who he first met in Paris on August 11.
The meeting, the first of three, was organized after Mr Laurent called the king’s office in late July to comment on the two journalists’ reports. Mr Laurent said he ended up agreeing to the deal, mostly for personal reasons – his wife has cancer, he said.
“I was tempted,” says Laurent. “Do I regret it?” Probably yes. But I have been in this profession for over 35 years, I have nothing to hide, and I work on the assumption that what was offered to us was a private transaction related to my work.
“I took risks to investigate, to discover a certain number of things, to acquire a certain number of documents,” added Mr. Laurent. “After that, it’s my right to publish a book or not to publish a book.”
Ms Graciet walked an equally fine line between journalistic integrity and criminal liability in her defense, acknowledging that the deal was ethically wrong but arguing that it was a private transaction agreed to by both parties and that ‘she was not breaking any law.
She says Le Parisien, a newspaper, that Mr. Laurent had told her about the Moroccan representative’s offer, but that she was incredulous about it, and that she agreed to attend the last meeting at Mr. Naciri’s insistence to learn more – only to be tempted by the offer as well.
“I had a moment of weakness,” she said. “It’s human, isn’t it?” Everyone wonders what we could do with their life with 2 million euros. Try to imagine the situation. And that was giving up publishing a book, not killing someone.
However, the news that Ms. Graciet and Mr. Laurent had agreed to withdraw their book project in exchange for money was all the more shocking in France and Morocco as they had established themselves in both countries as fierce critics. of the Moroccan leadership.
In 2012, they published a book that portrayed Mohammed VI as a “predatory king” who had fragmented the Moroccan economy to increase his personal wealth.
Ms. Graciet also wrote a book with Nicolas Beau in 2009 which criticized Leila Trabelsi, the wife of the former Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and in 1993, Mr. Laurent had published a more positive book consisting of interviews with Hassan II, the father and predecessor of Mohammed VI.
Eric Dupond-Moretti, lawyer for the King of Morocco in France, speaking to the i-Télé news channel Monday, said Laurent was the “first to mention the money” and upheld accusations that journalists blackmailed the King of Morocco by suggesting that the book would contain information that could destabilize the monarchy.
Without giving details, Mr Laurent did not deny that he and Ms Graciet were working on compromising information for the king, saying the book had the potential to ‘shake up’ the monarchy. He said Mr Naciri insisted they reveal the sources of their reports for the book, which they refused to do.
France and Morocco recently resumption of judicial cooperation after a long diplomatic dispute, but Mr Fabius, the foreign minister, dismissed any suggestion that their relationship could deteriorate once again because of the affair.
“It’s a bad movie,” said Mr. Fabius on French radio and television on Sunday. “This does not upset relations between our two countries.