French presidency denies probe of Le Monde L'Oreal source

13th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

The French presidency firmly denied Monday a claim by Le Monde that it had ordered an illegal investigation into the daily's source of leaked details of the inquiry into the L'Oreal scandal.

The paper had accused President Nicolas Sarkozy's office of trying to stifle reporting of the party finance case by breaking a law protecting whistleblowers in illegally 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.

In July, as part of its coverage of the ongoing investigations in the case, 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 intelligence to find out who had been in touch with Le Monde's reporter.

"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.

Woerth denies any wrongdoing, but admits that he lobbied for De Maistre -- who employed Woerth's wife to help manage Bettencourt's 17 billion euro (22 billion dollar) fortune -- to receive a state honour.

Le Monde 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 reporter.

The official, identified in the report as Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie's adviser David Senat, has since been removed from his post and sent on a mission to Cayenne, in French Guiana.

French law allows journalists to refuse to identify sources and protects them from police investigation except in exceptional circumstances. Le Monde alleges that these conditions were not met.

© 2010 AFP

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