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Sarkozy phone tap scandal backfires on govt

13 March 2014, 10:26

Paris - A scandal that landed former French leader Nicolas Sarkozy in hot water has boomeranged on to the Socialist government which has had to defend itself from charges of "political espionage" and now threatens a star minister.

Several leading members of France's right-wing opposition, itself reeling from a string of corruption cases allegedly implicating Sarkozy and several others, have called for the resignation of Justice Minister Christiane Taubira over the affair.

The controversy centres on explosive revelations on Friday that Sarkozy is being probed over suspicions he attempted to pervert the course of justice by trying to obtain secret information about an ongoing court case from a friendly judge.

Investigators got the alleged information when they heard a conversation between Sarkozy and his lawyer after tapping the former president's phones over a separate probe into allegations the late Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi helped finance his 2007 election campaign.

On Wednesday, financial prosecutors told AFP that Sarkozy's phones were tapped in September, although it is unclear when the conversation took place and whether the devices are still bugged.

The phone-tapping revelations - a first for a former president - caused outrage among Sarkozy's supporters and the focus soon shifted on to whether the Socialist government knew about the taps amid concerns the constitutional separation of powers had been breached.

On Monday, Taubira said she had no prior knowledge of the phone taps and she had learnt about them at the same time as the French public.

But in comments that contradicted her claims, Prime Minister Jean Marc Ayrault revealed on Tuesday that he was informed of the taps much earlier on 26 February 26 - as was Taubira.

Jean-Francois Cope, the head of the main opposition UMP party, slammed the phone-tapping as "political espionage", labelling it an "affair of state".

The justice minister "lied" and "it's not possible for her to stay in her post. Her resignation over this lie is inevitable," Cope said on Wednesday.

Just 10 days ago, Cope himself was under fire following press revelations that lucrative contracts given out by the UMP party benefited people close to him.

Taubira later on Wednesday admitted having been informed of the taps on 26 February, but ruled out resigning and said she was not aware of the contents of the phone conversations.

Government allies also leapt to her defence.

Alain Vidalies, the Socialist minister in charge of government relations with parliament, lashed out at the UMP for what he labelled "a successful smokescreen".

Government spokesperson Najat Vallaud-Belkacem condemned what she called a recurring tactic by the UMP.

"Every time that the UMP is in a bad way, it takes it out on the messenger... When today Mr Sarkozy is implicated in a very serious manner by judicial authorities, it's judicial authorities themselves that they try to discredit," she said.



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