After months of criticism over belt-tightening reforms to the pension system and his decision to expel thousands of Roma from France, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is being accused of taking a page from former U.S. president Richard Nixon's playbook.
The accusations, which involve a series of break-ins at journalists' homes and offices, the use of detailed phone bills to track down journalists' sources, and reports that Mr. Sarkozy set up and supervised a special unit of the secret service to spy on journalists, are grabbing headlines across France. And journalists are sounding the alarm, saying that Mr. Sarkozy has engaged the French secret service in order to stop them from reporting on allegations of widespread government corruption.
Although other French presidents have spied on the media, the French Union of Journalists says these incidents are far more serious.
"What we are seeing is worse than Nixon, it's worse than Watergate," union president Dominique Pradalié said. "It is very dangerous for democracy."
The accusations revolve around reporting of the so-called Bettencourt affair. Police are investigating allegations that the richest woman in France, L'Oreal cosmetics heiress Liliane Bettencourt, made illegal donations to Mr. Sarkozy's presidential campaign. They are also investigating allegations of tax evasion, influence peddling and a conflict of interest involving Ms. Bettencourt and a key member of Sarkozy's government, Labour Minister Eric Woerth.
In September, the daily newspaper Le Monde reported that the Division Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur (DCRI), the French equivalent of the CIA, had violated a new law to protect journalists' sources by obtaining detailed phone bills to track down an anonymous source in the Bettencourt affair. The source, an adviser to Solicitor-General Michèle Alliot-Marie, was transferred out of the country.
In October, someone broke into the Le Monde reporter's home and stole his computer and GPS. Journalists working on the Bettencourt story for the news website Mediapart and the weekly magazine Le Point, both of whom broke stories related to the Bettencourt case, also had their offices burgled and their computers stolen.
One of France's most prominent newspapers, the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné, reported last week that Mr. Sarkozy asked the head of the DCRI to set up a special unit to use counterintelligence techniques to put journalists under surveillance when they offended him or his entourage.
Mr. Sarkozy's office has denied all allegations of spying on reporters or state interference with the media. But new reports that an adviser to Prime Minister François Fillon recently sent a letter reminding the DCRI that obtaining personal phone bills is illegal has only added to the speculation.
Other French governments have spied on journalists. Most famously, former president François Mitterrand set up a special cell within his office to listen in on reporters' conversations, in an effort to find out what they knew or were planning to say about the fact that he had an illegitimate daughter.
Journalists say the most recent allegations are far more serious because they no longer involve personal matters but concern important allegations about corruption at the highest level of government.
Fabrice Arfi, the Mediapart reporter whose computer was stolen, says he has no proof the three burglaries are related but believes they were part of a plan to scare journalists' sources.
"It was a message of intimidation to our informants, to say their identity could be revealed and they should not talk to us," he said.
Le Monde's head of investigations, Gerard Davet, whose computer and GPS were stolen, alleges the DCRI used phone bills to track down sources because it had found a way to obtain them without getting permission from authorities. It would have needed special approval from a commission to use more sophisticated techniques such as wiretaps.
He says his sources have been more reluctant to speak to him in recent months or have insisted on taking extraordinary measures to protect their identity.
"The Bettencourt affair is completely emblematic. It explains the very important link in France between politics and money and if we go to the end of this case a lot of heads will fall," he said. "If the press is not allowed to function, the entire democratic process will fail."
Special to The Globe and Mail