President Nicolas Sarkozy personally supervises a team of security agents which spies on troublesome French journalists, it was claimed yesterday.
The claim – dismissed by the Elysée Palace as "utterly ridiculous" – follows a high-profile law suit brought in September by France's most prestigious newspaper and a series of burglaries in recent weeks at the homes or offices of investigative reporters.
According to the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné, President Sarkozy regularly orders the boss of France's internal security service to investigate and uncover the sources of any journalist who writes stories which embarrass the government.
A team of agents within the Division Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur (DCRI) – the French equivalent of MI5 and Special Branch – has been created to lead the investigations, the newspaper said.
Le Canard said that "since the start of the year" the President had "personally" intervened on several occasions with the head of the DCRI, Bernard Squarcini, a Sarkozy appointment and loyalist. Whenever the President saw an investigative article which "embarrassed him or his friends", he ordered the journalist to be placed "under surveillance", the newspaper said.
The Elysée Palace dismissed the claims as "utterly ridiculous". The leader of Mr Sarkozy's centre-right party, Xavier Bertrand, accused the newspaper of publishing a "great absurdity". The DCRI said that Mr Sarkozy had never given direct orders to Mr Squarcini on any subject.
However, sources within the DCRI confirmed to Le Monde that an "anti-leak" team did exist within the counter-intelligence agency to "protect national security". An opposition politician compared the "shameful" allegations to the Watergate affair in the US in the 1970s. Aurélie Filippetti of the Socialist Party accused President Sarkozy of being the "spiritual son of Richard Nixon".
Unusually for Canard, the article making the claims against the President was signed by the newspaper's editor, Claude Angeli. He told French radio yesterday that the story was based on information from within the DCRI. "We would not have written such a hard headline unless our sources were solid," he said. The article was headlined: "Sarko supervises spying on journalists."
The allegations follow the dramatic decision in September by Le Monde to bring a criminal action against "persons unknown" for the alleged illegal use of the counter-intelligence service to muzzle the press.
France's most respected newspaper said that officials in Mr Sarkozy's office had deployed the DCRI like a "cabinet noir", or dirty-tricks operation, to uncover the source of leaks in the L'Oréal family feud and political financing scandal.
A legal case is proceeding against "X" or person unknown but the French government has refused to release sensitive documents to the Paris public prosecutor for "reasons of state security".
The DCRI admits that it searched mobile phone records to track down a senior figure in the Justice Minister's office as the source of embarrassing leaks to Le Monde in July in the so-called "Bettencourt-Woerth" affair. Although the agency claimed to have done so legally, it later emerged that it had not sought the permission of the state's surveillance watchdog. Although the Bettencourt affair began as a family feud between France's wealthiest woman, Liliane Bettencourt, and her daughter, it exploded last summer into a state scandal.
Mr Sarkozy's Budget Minister, and former campaign treasurer, Eric Woerth, was accused of soliciting illegal political donations – and a job for his wife – from Ms Bettencourt's personal fund manager.
In the last few weeks, there has been a series of unexplained burglaries, and the theft of computers and other equipment, from the homes or offices of journalists who wrote investigative articles on the Bettencourt affair.
A laptop computer and a global positioning system was stolen from the home of Gérard Davet of Le Monde. A computer belonging to Hervé Gattegno was stolen from the offices of the centre-right news magazine, Le Point. Two computers and tapes were stolen from the offices of left-wing investigative website, Mediapart, which has led the way in uncovering the political aspects of the Bettencourt affair.
Asked about these crimes at his press conference after the EU summit in Brussels last week, President Sarkozy hesitated and said: "I don't see what they have to do with me."
As Canard pointed out yesterday, it was unusual for Mr Sarkozy to miss an opportunity to condemn a crime.
Marie-Pierre de la Gontrie, the secretary general for public liberties in the main opposition party, the Parti Socialiste, said yesterday: "The revelations in Canard Enchaîné are extremely serious. There must be an official investigation and the boss of the DCRI, Bernard Squarcini, must appear before the legal committee of the National Assembly."
Sarkozy's media battles
* France's most prestigious newspaper, Le Monde, accused Mr Sarkozy in September of illegally using the counter-intelligence service to muzzle the press. The newspaper said it had started legal action against 'persons unknown' at the Élysée Palace for breaking a century-old French law guaranteeing the secrecy of journalistic sources. The Élysée Palace flatly denied the accusation.* President Sarkozy ordered the merger of two competing intelligence agencies two years ago. He said the change was necessary on efficiency grounds and would create a French FBI. However, it was claimed that he suspected that one or both of the agencies had played a part in a dirty tricks campaign that had led to leaks about his failing marriage to Cécilia Attias.Reuse content