French newspaper claims that domestic intelligence agency broke law by investigating sources of leaks in Bettencourt affair
Kim Willsherin Paris
guardian.co.uk, Monday 13 September 2010 21.24 BST
France's most respected newspaper has accused Nicolas Sarkozy of ordering the counterintelligence services to spy on one of its reporters.
Quoting a law enacted during Sarkozy's presidency, Le Monde said it was suing for breach of confidentiality of sources linked to one of the most embarrassing scandals to hit the government.
The paper claimed that the DCRI, the equivalent of Britain's MI5 domestic secret service, had broken the law by investigating the source of leaks related to claims of tax evasion and illegal party funding by the L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt. "The law is absolutely clear. 'The confidentiality of journalists' sources is protected in the exercise of their mission to inform the public'," wrote Le Monde in its editorial.
It pointed out that this clause, strengthening a law dating back to 1881, was introduced by Sarkozy in January.
Since July, the president and his government have faced embarrassing allegations about donations by Bettencourt, France's richest woman, to Sarkozy's ruling right-of-centre UMP party.
In July, Le Monde published an article, including extracts from a police interview of a witness in the affair that had thrown suspicion on the government minister Eric Woerth, who is also the UMP's chief fundraiser. Woerth was accused of a conflict of interests, as his wife Florence worked for Bettencourt. He was also alleged to have accepted party donations from the billionaire while she was hiding part of her fortune in Swiss bank accounts.
He has denied any wrongdoing and the allegations are being investigated.
The Le Monde interview, based on leaked police interviews with the heiress's financial adviser, Patrice de Maistre, in which he claimed Woerth had encouraged him to employ his wife, was said to have "particularly irritated the Elysée".
Accusations against Woerth, the labour minister, came at a crucial time, as he is the driving force behind the president's bitterly contested raising of the pension age.
The Elysée is said to have ordered the DCRI to find the leaks source by obtaining details of calls made by people it suspected. It linked a Le Monde journalist to a justice ministry adviser who was subsequently demoted and sent to French Guyana.
Sylvie Kauffmann, Le Monde's editor, cited police and intelligence sources for the paper's claims against the Elysée. Le Monde announced it was suing "an unnamed person or persons" after Bernard Squarcini, director of the DCRI, told a French news magazine that his agency had looked into the source of the leaked police interviews in the affair. The Elysée "totally denies" the allegations. In a statement to Agence France Presse it said "the presidency of the Republic confirms it did not give any instruction whatsoever to any agency whatsoever". It is not the first time the Elysée has been accused of misusing the intelligence service for political or personal reasons. Earlier this year Sarkozy ordered the country's spies to look into the sources of rumours that he and his wife, Carla Bruni, were having affairs.
The late socialist president François Mitterrand ran an entire "counter-terrorist" operation at the Elysée place during the 1980s. It tapped the phones and spied on dozens of people including journalists, celebrities and rival politicians.
Reporters Sans Frontières said it was extremely disturbed by Le Monde's claims that the secrecy of sources law had been violated by the Elysée.
It said that, if true, the allegations were a serious violation of press freedom and unacceptable in a democracy.
"We offer Le Monde all our support in its determination to establish whether the government violated the confidentiality of sources," it said in a statement.
"These allegations must be treated with the utmost seriousness. Reinforcing the protection of journalists' sources was one of Nicolas Sarkozy's campaign promises and a law was even passed in January."
The organisation called for a parliamentary commission to look into the claims.
The Bettencourt affair
France's biggest political scandal in years began with a lawsuit filed by Françoise Bettencourt Meyers in 2007. Bettencourt Meyers claimed François-Marie Banier, a photographer, had preyed on her mother, Liliane Bettencourt.
Bettencourt Meyers's move to sue Banier and have her mother declared unable to manage her own affairs provoked fury from the L'Oréal heiress.
What started as a family feud became an affair of state in June when secret tapes recorded by the Bettencourt butler were released as evidence for the Banier trial.
The transcripts – 21 hours of conversation – appeared to show systematic tax evasion on the part of the doyenne and her advisers. tThe name of the French labour minister, Eric Woerth, was heard frequently, as well as that of his wife who, it transpired, had been working on Bettencourt's finances.
In the most explosive part of the case, Woerth was alleged to have received a large, illegal donation to the presidential campaign of Nicolas Sarkozy. Woerth, who has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and refused to resign from the government, was treasurer of Sarkozy's party, the Union for a Popular Movement, at the time he was alleged to have accepted the unlawful contribution. The 54-year-old was also budget minister and thereby France's top tax investigator at the time.
Union leaders, at odds with Woerth over pension reform, have said they can no longer work with him because the almost daily attacks were now too big a distraction.
Other parts of the transcripts suggest that Sarkozy, apparently concerned by a verdict against Banier, tried to prevent the case coming to court at all amid speculation that he had allegedly received a substantial donation from the Bettencourt family and did not want that to be made public. The Elysée has dismissed the allegation as baseless.
French law stipulates strict rules on political donations, limiting campaign contributions by individuals to 4,600 euros, and cash contributions to 150 euros. All private campaign contributions above that amount must be paid by cheque or online, with the donor clearly identified.
From: The Guardian