The accusation that the oil-rich Middle East micro-kingdom of Qatar is a major supporter of jihadist terror is a commonplace in English-language media and political debate. Last year, the Qatar/jihad nexus was a subject of lengthy exposés in both the British daily the Telegraph and Foreign Policy magazine; and just this past February, Congressman Doug Lamborn of Colorado sent a letter to US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in which he describes Qatar as “a major hub for terrorist operatives and terrorism finance.”
But if the Qatari royal family and two lawyers with close connections to the French political establishment have their way, any such talk could soon prove to be illicit in France. Earlier this month, the French daily Le Figaro revealed that the Gulf emirate has filed suit for defamation against Florian Philippot, vice president of France’s National Front and adviser to the party’s leader and presidential hopeful, Marine Le Pen.
The suit concerns comments made by Philippot during two separate appearances in the French media in January. The first appearance came on January 9th, just two days after France was rocked by an Islamic terror attack on the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. In an interview with LCI news television and Radio Classique, Philippot said,
I think that a large part of the French system, which is to say the elites, has been at least intellectually and morally corrupted—and certainly there have been financial affairs—by an incestuous relationship with this country, with Qatar.
Philippot added that the same holds also for Saudi Arabia, and he went on to say, “These countries finance Islamism that kills.”
In his remarks, Philippot made allusion to a recent paid talk given by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Doha at the invitation of the Qatari National Bank, as well as to many highly publicized Qatari investments and acquisitions in France.
A week and half after the LCI/Radio Classique interview, on January 19th, Philippot appeared on France’s BFM news television along with Alexis Bachelay, a Socialist member of France’s National Assembly (the lower house of Parliament) and vice president of the parliamentary “France-Qatar Friendship Group.” Bachelay called for the formation of a committee of inquiry in order, as he put it, to “throttle” (tordre le cou à) rumors concerning state financing of terrorism. “The name of Qatar is frequently mentioned,” Bachelay added, “and as for me, I have no proof.” Asked whether he was certain about the accusations, Philippot responded, somewhat shakily at first, “Yes. No. But I think the hypocrisy surrounding the subject has to stop. We have been saying it for years. You are looking for proof? There is plenty of proof.”
The lawsuit is being brought on Qatar’s behalf by Francis Szpiner and Jean-Pierre Mignard, two high-profile lawyers with well-known and intimate connections to France’s conservative and socialist political establishments, respectively. According to French press reports, Szpiner was an integral part of the crisis team at the Élysée Palace that advised former French President Jacques Chirac on the legal troubles that dogged his presidency. He has also served as the lawyer for Alain Juppé, French prime minster under Chirac and, more recently, minister of foreign affairs under Sarkozy. Along with Sarkozy, Juppé is presently one of the leading contenders for the presidential nomination of the newly re-baptized center-right party, “The Republicans.” Szpiner also, incidentally, served as lawyer for Muslim organizations that brought suit against Charlie Hebdo in 2007 after the paper published the controversial “Mohammed cartoons.”
Mignard has been the personal attorney of former Socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal (who lost to Sarkozy in 2007), and he was the director of Royal’s campaign organization. He is presently the lawyer of none other than French President François Hollande. Royal and Hollande were previously a couple, and Mignard is the godfather of two of their children.
The identity of the lawyers has fueled speculation that the suit against Philippot also has an internal political dimension. But Mignard and Szpiner deny this. “Despite our differences, we are both anti-fascists,” Mignard told Le Figaro, “That’s all.” He went on to say that Philippot’s accusations are based on “the most complete xenophobia.”
Qatar’s suit is somewhat reminiscent of the (thus far apparently unfulfilled) threats of Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo to file suit against Fox News for a segment on so-called “no-go zones” that Hidalgo deemed “insulting” and prejudicial to Paris’s image. Not surprisingly, when asked about the Qatari suit on France’s RTL radio, Hidalgo expressed her support, saying, “If they feel they’ve been insulted, they’re right to turn to the courts.”
Hidalgo went on to praise the cooperation between the city of Paris and the Qatari management of France’s premier soccer club, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG). Since 2012, PSG has been fully owned by the Qatar Investment Authority. Hidalgo thanked the Qataris not only for the club’s recent performance (three straight first-division championships), but also for “supporting things that are very important to me. I’m thinking of women’s soccer [i.e., the PSG women’s squad] … And then the whole fight against homophobia and racism in the stadiums.”
Referring to Hidalgo’s remarks, Le Figaro’s Tristan Quinault Maupoil noted ironically,
Too bad if the emirate condemns its own homosexual citizens to prison sentences and lashings. In 2010, FIFA president Sepp Blatter advised gay fans tempted to go to the 2022 World Cup, which will be held in the emirate, to “abstain from all sexual activity.”
Philippot—who, incidentally, was recently “outed” by the French magazine Closer as himself homosexual—took to his Twitter feed to respond to Hidalgo’s remarks. In a first tweet, he wrote, “A. Hidalgo who fully supports Qatar thus accepts self-censorship on the crushing of human rights and women’s rights by this dictatorship.” This was followed by a second tweet reading simply “@Anne_Hidalgo have you no shame?” and containing the hashtags #Qatar, #Dictatorship, #Women’s Rights, #Slavery, and #Islamism.
John Rosenthal is a European-based journalist and political analyst who writes on EU politics and transatlantic security issues. He is the author of The Jihadist Plot: The Untold Story of Al-Qaeda and the Libyan Rebellion. You can follow his work at www.trans-int.com or on Facebook here.