PARIS (AP) — Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and his pop-star-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 onetime conservative darling a major headache — just as he has positioned himself for a political comeback.
Sarkozy and his wife sought an emergency injunction 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 — jeopardizing 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 Monday against an aide who was among the most trusted men in their inner circle — until last week. That's when recordings 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 ongoing 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 who drummed him out of office. 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."
The recordings by Buisson — who has filed suit for misuse of the files — include day-to-day discussions of a chief executive and his entourage, including mild criticism of some in the inner circle. Online news site Atlantico said the recordings were published and transcribed "for legitimate public interest" but that it has taken down those involving Bruni because "she is not a political personality and never claimed any role as such."
A lawyer for the publication said the other tapes were of public interest because they showed both the internal deliberations of the president and his inner circle, as well as the decision by a member of the group to secretly tape their discussions.
He questioned why the couple — whose courtship was very much out in the open — was suddenly so worried about privacy. The tapped phones are a separate and potentially more serious saga. 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 political influence to keep apprised of internal legal deliberations.
Sarkozy has never been convicted of wrongdoing. Le Monde newspaper, which first reported the judicial phone tapping, said that the case centered around whether Sarkozy and his 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. The lawyer expressed outrage that his conversations with a politically sensitive client would be tapped. Other lawyers were similarly concerned, and the head of the Paris bar sent a letter to Hollande on Monday.
"I've taken this directly to the president, who is the guardian of our public liberties, so he can settle this and take the necessary measures at his level," Pierre Olivier Sur, head of the Paris bar, told Europe 1 radio. "It involves the defense of our public liberty, and that liberty is the professional secrets of lawyers, professional secrets of doctors, professional secrets of priests."
Nonsense, said the head of the magistrates' union, Christophe Regnard. "The judicial process here is normal, there is no need for heated rhetoric," Regnard said. "We're being treated like people who undermine democracy when we only enforce the law."
Thomas Guenole, a researcher at the elite Sciences Po institute, said he saw no plot against Sarkozy. "The conspiracy theory is one of the most common tricks of the politicians to defend themselves when there is a judicial investigation," Guenole said. "As long as the judicial hurdles are not over, Nicolas Sarkozy is somebody whose strategy of a 2017 comeback is threatened with a sword of Damocles."
Sarkozy, whose appearances at his wife's recent concerts generate as much attention as her singing, has stayed out of the fray so far, allowing friends and associates to speak for him. Speaking at a public event Monday in Nice, Sarkozy avoided the subject, acknowledging it only with a brief allusion to the journalists on his tail.
And at the court hearing in Paris, which neither he nor Bruni attended, gendarmes searched bags for hidden recording devices.
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