Sarkozy phone tapped in inquiry into suspected Gadafy link

Phones of former French president, his lawyer and two former ministers tapped

The telephones of France's former president Nicolas Sarkozy, his lawyer and two of Mr Sarkozy's former interior ministers were tapped last year by magistrates investigating alleged contributions by the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gadafy to Mr Sarkozy's 2007 campaign, Le Monde revealed today.

This is the first time a former French president's phone has been tapped by French authorities. The taps led judges Serge Tournaire and René Grouman back to another financial scandal involving Mr Sarkozy: contributions by France's richest woman, L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

Puzzled by Mr Sarkozy's extreme discretion on the phone, the judges discovered he had got a second mobile phone under a fictitious name, which he used to talk to his lawyer, Thierry Herzog, who had also secured a second mobile under a fictitious name.

Mr Sarkozy was cleared last October of having taken advantage of Ms Bettencourt’s mental frailty to obtain some €4 million from her. But judges in that case specified they decided not to prosecute him only because the evidence was not watertight. Ten other people involved in the Bettencourt case are to stand trial.

The Bettencourt case is linked, via Mr Sarkozy's datebooks, to a third Sarkozy scandal: the awarding of €403 million in damages by then finance minister Christine Lagarde to a friend of Mr Sarkozy's, the maverick businessman Bernard Tapie.

Tapie case
Mr Sarkozy's diaries were seized in the Bettencourt case, but when they revealed how close he was to Mr Tapie, whom he received 22 times at the Élysée, they were submitted as evidence in the Lagarde-Tapie investigation. Mr Herzog filed a suit last September demanding that the diaries be discounted as evidence, which would destroy a significant part of the Tapie case.

The court of cassation, France's highest court, is scheduled to decide on the admissibility of Mr Sarkozy's diaries on March 11th. The taps on his and Mr Herzog's phones revealed that they were kept abreast of deliberations by Gilbert Azibert, a high-ranking judge at the court.

Sources at the court describe Mr Azibert as a careerist networker who rose through the justice system by doing the bidding of those in power. Le Monde reports that Mr Azibert "has always been suspected of playing an influential role among freemasons".

In one recording, Mr Herzog relayed a special request from Mr Azibert to Mr Sarkozy. The judge will retire soon from the court of cassation and would like to be appointed a French councillor of state in the royal palace at Monaco. Could Mr Sarkozy use his influence to persuade Prince Albert to request Mr Azibert's appointment, Mr Herzog asked.

Mr Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni Sarkozy spent a week's holiday at the Hôtel de Paris in Monaco at the end of February. They were joined there by Mr Herzog. According to Le Monde , the investigating magistrates believe Messers Sarkozy and Herzog used the opportunity to seek the support of Monégasque authorities for Mr Azibert's candidacy.

On February 26th, a new financial court established by the socialist government opened an investigation into Mr Sarkozy’s possible “violation of judicial secrecy” – his alleged use of Mr Azibert as an informer – and “influence peddling”, his alleged attempts to get Mr Azibert appointed as a councillor of state in Monaco.

Last Tuesday, police searched the homes and offices of Messers Azibert and Mr Herzog.

Not counting the Bettencourt affair, which could yet come back to haunt him, Mr Sarkozy is now under investigation in five murky financial dossiers.

The cases take years to come to court and until or unless he is convicted of wrongdoing, Mr Sarkozy’s hopes for the 2017 presidential election remain intact.

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent of The Irish Times