Secret Sarkozy tapes could threaten his political comeback

Former president battling revelations of private conversations with both wife and lawyer amid conservative accusations of co-ordinated attack

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 March, 2014, 9:06pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2014, 12:58am


Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and his supermodel wife have always thrived under the public gaze. But recent scrutiny has given even this French glamour couple reason to squirm.

A playful conversation between Sarkozy and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy that mysteriously surfaced in the press has combined with the publication of snippets of sensitive legal discussions to deal the one-time conservative darling a major headache - just as he has positioned himself for a political comeback.

Sarkozy and his wife sought an emergency injunction on Monday to block further publication of their private conversations. But it was the revelation that phone calls between Sarkozy and his lawyer were being recorded by investigative judges that could deal the politician the more serious blow.

In the latter affair, Sarkozy has secured the support of prominent lawyers who express concern that their calls to clients could be tapped any time - jeopardising attorney-client privilege. The Socialist government showed little sympathy, issuing a reminder that judicial phone tapping can target anyone - including lawmakers, lawyers, judges and journalists.

Sarkozy and Bruni-Sarkozy went into attack mode on Monday against an aide who was among the most trusted men in their inner circle - until last week.

That's when recordings made by Patrick Buisson were released on a French website and a newspaper. A lawyer for Buisson indicated the recorder was on inadvertently and that Buisson himself was betrayed by the "theft and misuse" of the files, which included teasing chitchat in which Bruni told her husband he was a kept man.

But Sarkozy's lawyer, Thierry Herzog, said it all came down to Buisson's "lies, betrayal and deception".

Those secretly taped conversations turned out to be only the beginning of Sarkozy's privacy predicament. Days later, it emerged that investigating judges were also tapping conversations of the former French leader in an investigation into his 2007 presidential campaign.

The two cases are linked only by the name of Sarkozy, whose continued presence as France's most visible conservative is as much an irritant to his own faltering UMP party as it is to the Socialists. Some have questioned why the recordings emerged now, just two weeks before municipal elections that are seen as a test of strength for unpopular President Francois Hollande.

"This is not a case. This is a soap opera. And I do not think it is by chance," Brice Hortefeux, Sarkozy's former interior minister and a subject of the Buisson recordings, told RTL radio on Monday. "The more the French see hope in Sarkozy, the more he is targeted."

Online news site Atlantico said the recordings were published and transcribed "for legitimate public interest" but that it has taken down those involving Bruni-Sarkozy because "she is not a political personality".

A lawyer for the publication questioned why the couple - whose courtship was very much out in the open - were suddenly so worried about privacy.

Adding to Sarkozy's woes, a French court yesterday threw out his plea against the seizure of his diaries by judges investigating a corruption case.

The documents were initially confiscated as part of an inquiry into allegations Sarkozy took advantage of France's richest woman, 91-year-old Liliane Bettencourt, when she was too frail to know what she was doing in helping fund his successful 2007 election campaign.

Charges against him were dropped in October but 10 other people, including his former campaign treasurer Eric Woerth, have been sent for trial.

However, the tapped phones are potentially more serious. Those recordings were made after Sarkozy left the presidency in 2012 at the request of judges investigating the origin of funding for his 2007 presidential campaign. Based on the content of the recordings the judges opened a new investigation into whether Sarkozy was using his influence to keep apprised of internal legal deliberations.

Sarkozy has never been convicted of wrongdoing.

Le Monde said that the case centred around whether Sarkozy and his lawyer, Herzog, were kept informed of insider investigation information by a friendly magistrate, who was promised a plum court job in Monaco in exchange.

Herzog and Sarkozy have both denied committing any offence. Herzog expressed outrage that his conversations with a politically sensitive client would be tapped.