The French security services broke the law on the orders of Élysée Palace last summer to try to halt a series of politically embarrassing leaks, it was alleged yesterday.
The centre-left newspaper Le Monde said that it had proof it was the victim of a full-blown "state scandal": the misuse of the counter-intelligence services to trample laws on press freedom to protect the "private interests" of President Nicolas Sarkozy and his party.
The accusation came on the same day that a book claimed Mr Sarkozy accepted illegal campaign contributions in cash from France's wealthiest woman in 2007. The claims are deeply intertwined. Both form part of the "Bettencourt affair", a political-financial soap opera that gripped France last summer and now threatens to destabilise Mr Sarkozy in the run-up to next spring's presidential election.
Almost a year ago Le Monde took the unusual step of bringing a criminal complaint against "persons unknown" for breaking a relatively new law that guarantees the privacy of journalistic sources. Le Monde accused the French security service, the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur (DCRI), of illegally obtaining the phone records of a reporter, Gérard Davet.
The Sarkozy government dismissed the allegation, saying that it has merely sought to identify a mole who was leaking sensitive information from within the Justice Ministry. "The DCRI is not the Stasi," the ex-interior minister Brice Hortefeux said at the time. "Its job is not to harass journalists."
The newspaper reported yesterday that its own version of what was dubbed "Sarkogate" or "Mondegate" had proved to be correct. "We now know that the government lied," the newspaper said in a front-page editorial.
An investigation by an independent examining magistrate, Sylvia Zimmerman, has uncovered documents sent by the DCRI to the telephone operator Orange requisitioning records of the calls made or received by Mr Davet, in the period between 12 and 16 July last year. Such requisitions are supposed to be used only when state security is threatened.
Mr Davet was the author of a series of articles in Le Monde – including one on 19 July 2010 – which revealed politically embarrassing aspects of the Bettencourt affair. He is also the co-author of the book published yesterday, Sarko m'a tuer (Sarko killed me), in which a judge, Isabelle Prévost-Desprez, says that she received off-the-record, eye-witness evidence that Mr Sarkozy had accepted an illegal campaign contribution from the L'Oréal heiress, Liliane Bettencourt, 88, in 2007. The Bettencourt affair began as a family quarrel over money between the billionairess and her only child, Françoise Meyers-Bettencourt. This aspect of the affair has now been settled out of court.