Edward Snowden helps France rediscover its own whistleblowers

Irène Frachon is a French pneumologist who discovered that an antidiabetic drug frequently prescribed for weight loss called Mediator was causing severe heart damage.

Irène Frachon is a French pneumologist who discovered that an antidiabetic drug frequently prescribed for weight loss called Mediator was causing severe heart damage.

The French term “lanceur d’alerte” [literally: “alarm raiser”], which translates as “whistleblower”, was coined by two French sociologists in the 90’s and popularised by scientific André Cicolella, a whistleblower who was fired in 1994 from l’Institut national de recherche et de sécurité [the National institute for research and security] for having blown the whistle on the dangers of glycol ethers.

While the history of whistleblowing in the United States is closely associated with the case of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times in 1971, exposing US government lies and helping to end the Vietnam war, whistleblowing in France was first associated with cases of scientists who raised the alarm over a health or an environmental risk.

In England, the awareness that whistleblowers needed protection grew in the early 1990s, after a series of accidents (among which the shipwreck of the MS Herald of Free Enterprise ferry, in 1987, which caused 193 deaths) when it appeared that the tragedies could have been prevented if employees had been able to voice their concerns without fear of losing their job. The Public Interest Disclosure Act, passed in 1998, is one of the most complete legal frameworks protecting whistleblowers. It still is a reference.

France had no shortage of national health scandals in the 1990s, from the case of HIV-contaminated blood to the case of growth hormone. But no legislation followed. For a long time, whistleblowers were at the center of a confusion: their action was seen as reminiscent of the institutionalised denunciations that took place under the Vichy regime when France was under Nazi occupation. In fact, no later than this year, some conservative MPs managed to defeat an amendment on whistleblowers’ protection by raising the spectre of Vichy.

For Marie Meyer, Expert of Ethical Alerts at Transparency International, an anti-corruption NGO, this confusion makes little sense: “Whistleblowing is heroic, snitching cowardly”, she says.

“In France, the turning point was definitely the Mediator case, and Irène Frachon,” Meyer adds, referring to the case of a French pneumologist who discovered that an antidiabetic drug frequently prescribed for weight loss called Mediator was causing severe heart damage. In 2010, Frachon published a book – Mediator, 150mg, Combien de morts ? [“Mediator, 150mg, How Many Deaths?”] – where she recounted her long fight for the drug to be banned. Servier, the pharmaceutical company which produced the drug, managed to censor the title of the book and get it removed from the shelves two days after publication, before the judgement was overturned. Frachon has been essential in uncovering a scandal which is believed to have caused between 500 and 2000 deaths. With scientist André Cicolella, she has become one of the better-known French whistleblowers.

“What is striking is that people knew, whether in the case of PIP breast implants or of Mediator”, says Meyer. “You had doctors who knew, employees who remained silent, because they were scared of losing their job.”

This year, the efforts of various NGOs led by ex whistleblowers were finally met with results. Last January, France adopted a law (first proposed to the Senate by the Green Party) protecting whistleblowers for matters pertaining to health and environmental issues. The Cahuzac scandal, which fully broke in February and March, prompting the minister of budget to resign over Mediapart’s allegations that he had a secret offshore account, was instrumental in raising awareness and created the political will to protect whistleblowers.

For Meyer, France’s failure to protect whistleblowers employed in the public service has had direct consequences on the level of corruption in the country.

“Even if a public servant came to know that something was wrong with the financial accounts of a Minister, be it Cahuzac or someone else, how could he have had the courage to say it, and risk for his career and his life to be broken?” she says.

In June, as France discovered Edward Snowden’s revelations in the press over mass surveillance programs used by the National Security Agency, it started rediscovering its own whistleblowers: André Cicolella, Irène Frachon or Philippe Pichon, who was dismissed as a police commander in 2011 after his denunciations on the way police files were updated. Banker Pierre Condamin-Gerbier, a key witness in the Cahuzac case, was recently added to the list, when he was imprisoned in Switzerland on the 5th of July, two days after having been heard by the French Parliamentary Commission on the tax evasion case.

Three new laws protecting whistleblowers’ rights should be passed in the autumn. France will still be missing an independent body carrying out investigations into claims brought up by whistleblowerss, and an organisation to support them, like British charity Public Concern at Work does in the UK.

So far, French law doesn’t plan any particular protection to individuals who blow the whistle in the press, failing to recognise that, for a whistleblower, communicating with the press can be the best way to make a concern public – guaranteeing that the message won’t be forgotten, while possibly seeking to limit the reprisal against the messenger.