Fri, Sep 30, 2011 - Page 6 News List

New scandal hits French president’s bid for re-election

The Guardian, PARIS

The threat to French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s re-election bid from corruption scandals intensified on Wednesday when a leading state prosecutor close to the president was summoned before judges over an alleged dirty tricks campaign to spy on3 journalists.

Seven months before the presidential election, Sarkozy has seen his close circle come under pressure in a series of corruption investigations whose plots thicken by the day.

Investigators are untangling a web of scandals involving alleged illegal party-funding with banknotes variously stuffed into bags, briefcases and brown envelopes, as well as phone interceptions.

As the beleaguered president unveiled his austerity budget on Wednesday, his government was waging a public relations war to try to dampen the talk of sleaze and to stress that Sarkozy himself had not been personally implicated.

However, with his closest allies being dragged into investigations, questions were being raised over Sarkozy’s role. The latest scandal involves an alleged cabinet noir, or office of shady operations, at the highest reaches of the state after Le Monde complained that the secret services had spied on its journalists to uncover their sources.

French state intelligence agencies are accused of illegally obtaining detailed phone records of every call and movement of Le Monde’s investigations editor Gerard Davet in order to uncover his source on a story about the Bettencourt affair — the family saga that exploded into a series of tax-evasion and illegal party-funding scandals that were extremely damaging to the French right.

The source of one story was uncovered as an official in the justice ministry, who was swiftly demoted by the government and posted to French Guiana. Le Monde claims two other journalists’ phone records were illegally obtained.

The episode was seen as an attempt by the highest echelons of the state to lean on the media and its sources and scare them into silence. Opposition Socialists are demanding an independent commission examine whether the president’s circle used state intelligence agencies to try to limit the damage to the ruling right UMP party from the Bettencourt scandal.

Le Monde reported on Wednesday that the magistrate and state prosecutor, Philippe Courroye, seen as close to Sarkozy, was to be interviewed by a Paris judge as part of the investigation into the spying scandal. The paper said a judge had written to Courroye to summon him for questioning.

Courroye issued a statement dismissing all allegations and saying he was outraged by the “calumny” against him. He has denied being too close to Sarkozy.

Two other key figures of Sarkozy’s circle, the head of the secret services, Bernard Squarcini, and chief of police Frederic Pechenard, are also to be summoned as witnesses.

The spying saga is the latest in a bewildering array of corruption investigations to hit the right.

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