Spies ordered to trace leak, says 'Le Monde'

 

THE FRENCH daily Le Monde has accused the Élysée Palace of ordering the intelligence service to carry out an inquiry into the paper’s coverage of a party funding scandal.

In a front-page report under its editor’s name yesterday, Le Monde said it was initiating legal action over an alleged attempt to trace the source of a story on the so-called Bettencourt-Woerth affair.

The private inheritance dispute involving France’s richest woman, L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, has led to a series of damaging allegations of illegal party financing that has hounded the government and badly weakened the labour minister, Éric Woerth, over the past three months.

Citing police and intelligence sources, Le Monde claimed the DCRI domestic intelligence service carried out an investigation to find out who was the source behind a story that appeared in Le Monde in July. It said the Élysée had been “particularly irritated” by the report, which included confidential details that emerged during the police interrogation of Ms Bettencourt’s financial adviser, Patrice de Maistre.

“The DCRI, French counter-intelligence in other words, was called in” to try to identify the journalist’s source, Le Monde’s editor, Sylvie Kauffmann, wrote under the headline: “The Élysée broke the law on protecting press sources.” The paper intended to sue for a breach of the law on confidentiality of sources, it stated in a front-page editorial.

The Élysée responded yesterday with a brief statement saying it “totally denies” Le Monde’s accusations and that the presidency never gave any instructions to any intelligence service on this issue.

The paper alleges that intelligence officers obtained telephone records and confirmed that a senior government official had spoken to the paper’s journalist Gérard Davet. It said the official has since been removed from his post and sent to work on a project in Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana.

Mr Woerth, whose wife worked for the company that gave financial advice to Ms Bettencourt, has been accused of a conflict of interest, a charge he strongly denies. The original Le Monde article concerned the circumstances in which his wife was hired.

The paper claims the intelligence agency was asked to “bring an end” to the leaks behind the story, but asserts that the ensuing investigation breached a law – strengthened by Mr Sarkozy’s government in January – which protects the confidentiality of journalistic sources.

The ruling UMP party declined to comment on Le Monde’s claims yesterday, but the opposition was quick to round on the government.

Socialist party spokesman Benoît Hamon called for “light to be shed” on the issue of whether phone tapping was involved or not, while his party colleague Aurélie Filipetti said it was an “unacceptable attack” on “one of the fundamental principles of a democracy: the protection of journalists’ sources”.

Earlier this year, the head of French domestic intelligence said his organisation had looked into the source of rumours about the president’s marriage amid claims from within Mr Sarkozy’s camp that the stories might have been deliberately spread to damage the head of state.