Paris-French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government came under increasing pressure Friday after Paris daily newspaper Le Monde said a judge had evidence that French secret services had illegally spied on a journalist to find out his sources.
The case involves Le Monde reporter Gerard Davet, and is linked to a scandal known as the Bettencourt affair, involving the finances of the L’Oreal cosmetics heiress, Liliane Bettencourt, and allegations of possibly illegal political donations to Sarkozy.
Le Monde, widely regarded as France’s newspaper of record, filed a legal complaint last year against Sarkozy’s administration for allegedly violating a 2010 law protecting journalistic sources as it sought to trace leaks relating to an inquiry into the scandal.
Le Monde said Thursday that the judge investigating the case, Sylvie Zimmerman, had obtained records from mobile phone company Orange that showed that the secret services, the DCRI (Direction Centrale du Renseignement Interieur) had asked for Davet’s phone records last July.
The records included details of all his incoming and outgoing calls, the time the calls were made and Davet’s location at the time.
Two days later, the DCRI made a second request, Le Monde said, this time for the telephone records of David Senat, a senior government official who was suspected of being Davet’s source within the administration.
Senat was subsequently removed from his post and sent to work on a mission in French Guiana, in South America.
The documents provided by Orange showed that the DCRI had looked first at the journalist’s confidential records to find his source, then at his contact’s records, Le Monde said — contradicting what the government had previously said.
Asked by French radio station France Info Thursday about the phone-tapping claims, interior minister Claude Gueant denied Davet’s phone had been tapped but acknowledged his phone records had been requested.
“There was effectively a review of telephone communications which is totally different to phone tapping,” he said. “Reviewing telephone communications did not allow one to know the content of the conversation.”
Gueant said it had been a matter of looking for the person responsible for disclosing information while a judicial process was ongoing, a practice he labelled “totally scandalous.”
The office of Zimmerman, the judge investigating the case, said she would not comment to the media on the issue.
Le Monde said Friday that what has happened is “totally illegal” and in breach of the law protecting journalists’ sources and freedom of speech legislation.
But Eric Morain, a Paris-based French criminal lawyer, told CNN he believed the January 2010 law brought in to prevent research into a journalist’s sources was too general.
Morain said the requests to Orange for details of calls made and received appeared to be a way to “circumvent the law to obtain (the journalist’s) source.”
Referring to the Le Monde’s claims, he said: “One cannot say today that (what has been done) is illegal but I think in the spirit of the law, it should be illegal.”
The Bettencourt scandal has fascinated France since questions about the finances of Liliane Bettencourt, the elderly heir to the L’Oreal cosmetics empire and France’s richest woman, emerged last year amid a family feud.
Among the matters probed by investigators last summer were claims that secret, possibly illegal payments were made to French politicians, including Sarkozy, his labor minister Eric Woerth and members of his party — and Le Monde says it was Davet’s reporting of Woerth’s links to the case that prompted the examination of his phone records.
Responding to that claim last year, the Elysee Palace, the French equivalent of the White House, said: “The Elysee completely denies Le Monde’s charges and the presidency would like to make it clear that it never gave any order to any service.”