Le Monde cries foul as France probes L'Oreal leak
French police confirmed Monday that a senior official has been implicated in a leak investigation, as a furious row erupted over an alleged attack on press freedom by President Nicolas Sarkozy.
France's most celebrated newspaper, Le Monde, accused Sarkozy's office of ordering an illegal probe into its reporting of the L'Oreal affair, a complex and long-running inquiry into an alleged party funding scandal
Sarkozy's office firmly denied it had ordered police intelligence officers to trace the source of the leak to the paper, but France's national police chief confirmed an official had been accused of releasing restricted information.
Frederic Pechenard called it a "legitimate investigation of the origin of leaks" carried out under the auspices of the domestic intelligence service's "mission to protect the security of institutions."
The police chief said he had evidence that a ministerial aide had leaked information and that this had been passed to prosecutors.
The leak probe is only the latest episode in an increasingly complex case surrounding France's richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, who has been linked to alleged illegal funding of Sarkozy's campaign.
Earlier, in a front page editorial, Le Monde accused the Elysee of trying to stifle reporting of the L'Oreal case and of breaking a law designed to protect whistleblowers who leak information to the press.
"The Elysee totally denies the accusations by Le Monde and the presidency adds that it never gave any instructions to any service at all," the Elysee said, in a brief statement to AFP.
The daily said it had lodged a legal complaint after being told by police sources that intelligence officers studied the telephone records of a justice ministry official to discover if he had leaked sensitive information.
Scenting a new opportunity to embarrass Sarkozy, ecologist 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 predicted 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, 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 denies any wrongdoing, but has since admitted that he did write a letter endorsing De Maistre -- who employed Woerth's wife to help him manage Bettencourt's 17 billion euro (22 billion dollar) fortune.
Bettencourt, the 87-year-old heiress of the L'Oreal shampoo and cosmetics empire, has been accused by former staff of making large, illegal donations through Woerth 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 been sent on a mission to Cayenne, near the former Devil's Island prison colony in French Guiana, Le Monde alleged.
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