Le Monde accuses Sarkozy over L'Oreal probe
France's most celebrated newspaper, Le Monde, on Monday accused President Nicolas Sarkozy's government of ordering an illegal probe into its reporting of the L'Oreal party funding scandal.
Sarkozy's office firmly denied the claim it had ordered police intelligence officers to trace a leak to the paper, but his opponents seized on the report to accuse him of misusing state power to muzzle media criticism.
Le Monde accused the Elysee Palace of trying to stifle reporting of a long-running party finance investigation and of breaking a law protecting whistleblowers by investigating the source of one of its stories.
"The Elysee totally denies the accusations by Le Monde and the presidency adds that it never gave any instructions (on this issue) to any service at all," Sarkozy's office said, in a brief statement to AFP.
The daily said it had lodged a legal complaint after being told by police sources that domestic intelligence studied the telephone records of a justice ministry official to discover if he had leaked sensitive information.
Le Monde's lawsuit is the latest episode in the increasingly complex scandal surrounding France's richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, who has been linked to alleged illegal funding of Sarkozy's campaign.
Scenting a new opportunity to embarrass Sarkozy, Euro-MP and former prosecutor Eva Joly branded the affair "Sarkogate" and opposition lawmakers demanded that the government answer questions in parliament.
Green deputy Noel Mamere said Le Monde is a serious newspaper and would not have complained without reason, predicting that Sarkozy's alleged attempt to restrain a free press would become a "new scandal of state."
"It's proof that when power is exercised without restraint, it drives you mad and becomes a poison," he said, accusing Sarkozy of "pathetic narcissism."
In July, as part of its coverage of the ongoing investigations, Le Monde published a front page account including leaked details of the police questioning of Bettencourt's financial adviser, Patrice de Maistre.
According to Monday's report, the Elysee was annoyed confidential details of the interrogation had been leaked and ordered police to investigate.
"The counter-espionage service was used to find the source of one of our reporters," Le Monde's news director Sylvie Kauffmann wrote in a front page article headlined: "The Elysee broke the law on protecting press sources."
The paper accused the government of seeking to silence reports on the L'Oreal affair, which has damaged Labour Minister Eric Woerth -- Sarkozy's former fundraiser -- who stands accused of conflict of interest.
It emerged in the July report, which Le Monde wrote based on hitherto private testimony to police, that De Maistre had spoken to Woerth about being awarded the Legion of Honour -- which Woerth at that point had denied.
Woerth still denies any wrongdoing, but has since admitted that he did indeed write a letter endorsing De Maistre -- who employed Woerth's wife to help him manage Bettencourt's 17 billion euro (22 billion dollar) fortune.
Bettenourt, the 87-year-old heiress of the L'Oreal shampoo and cosmetics empire, has been accused by former staff of making large, illegal donations to Woerth and to Sarkozy's successful 2007 presidential campaign.
Sarkozy and Woerth deny this, but Woerth has stepped down as treasurer of the majority UMP party to avoid accusations of conflict of interest, while his wife has resigned from De Maistre's accounting firm.
Le Monde now alleges that officers, operating without a judicial warrant, obtained a senior justice ministry civil servant's telephone records and confirmed he had spoken to the paper's reporter, Gerard Davet.
The official, identified as Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie's adviser David Senat, has since been removed from his post and sent on a mission to Cayenne, near the former Devil's Island prison colony in French Guiana.
French law allows journalists to refuse to identify sources and protects their contacts from police investigation except in exceptional circumstances. Le Monde alleges that these conditions were not met.
© 2010 AFP