Sarkozy Wiretap Controversy Engulfs Hollande Team Before Vote

A controversy surrounding the tapping of former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s phone is rattling his successor.

Since news broke on March 7 of the year-long tapping of Sarkozy’s phone by judges investigating him on charges of illegal campaign funding, members of President Francois Hollande’s government have been confronted with what they knew and when. Their differing responses have drawn charges from the opposition of political interference in the French legal system.

The Hollande government’s communication missteps and revelations from illegal recordings in Sarkozy’s own camp have provided fodder for the front pages of French newspapers. With less than two weeks to go before France’s municipal elections, polls suggest both of the country’s main parties will suffer.

“The feeling of the French will be that they’re all rotten,” said Laurent Dubois, a professor at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris. “Sarkozy has managed to cover his tracks and now no one understands anything. The government could have benefited from this but the communication errors make them look like amateurs.”

Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, who’s at the center of the controversy, said yesterday that she was informed of the surveillance Feb. 28, reversing a statement from two days earlier in which she pleaded ignorance of the taps.

“I didn’t know the dates of the intercepted conversations and even now I don’t know the content,” Taubira said.

Hollande has called for a meeting with her today.

Labor Minister Michel Sapin said on Europe 1 radio today that “the government was informed in accordance with the law and there has been no breach of the law.”

Unpopular President

The popularity of Hollande, who’s struggling to revive economic growth and cut joblessness, remains near record lows, polls have shown in recent weeks. The Socialist president’s approval rating slid three points in a month to 25 percent, according to a Harris Interactive poll published March 3.

Sarkozy, who stepped up public appearances earlier this year, saw his own standing with voters slip last week following the revelations about recordings made by former adviser Patrick Buisson while he was in office. The portion of voters expressing a good opinion of Sarkozy fell 6 points in a month to 44 percent, according to an Ifop poll for Paris Match published March 11.

“The Buisson recordings hurt Nicolas Sarkozy,” Eva Joly, former presidential candidate for France’s ecologist party, said on France 2 television. “They looked like a ventriloquist and his puppet.”

The spat over those recordings was overtaken by the one about judicial wiretaps made of Sarkozy after he left office.

Sarkozy Cases

Paris judges are working on three cases involving the former president, Le Monde reported March 7. They’re probing alleged illegal political funding from Libya’s former leader Muammar Qaddafi; the circumstances surrounding money Sarkozy is alleged to have received from L’Oreal SA heiress Liliane Bettencourt; and his role in then-Finance Minister Christine Lagarde’s decision on an arbitration settlement with French businessman Bernard Tapie.

Two earlier probes by judges into Sarkozy’s campaign finances have been dropped and Henri Guaino, another former Sarkozy adviser who is now a lawmaker for his Union for a Popular Movement Party said the continuing investigations have become unreasonable and are harming Sarkozy’s reputation.

“This is an abuse of power,” Guaino said “What’s happening is over the top.”

Le Pen

The wiretaps and serial allegations of misconduct may harm any bid by Sarkozy to return to power after he lost to Hollande in the presidential election of May 2012. Sarkozy has made trips across France since the start of the year, and even had a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, hinting at his intention to run for office in 2017.

Paris judges began tapping Sarkozy’s phone in April 2013 as part of an investigation into allegations of illegal funding by the Qaddafi regime in 2006 or 2007, Le Monde reported, without citing anyone. Sarkozy was elected president in May 2007.

For now, the main beneficiary of the controversies may be Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration, anti-euro National Front. Le Pen has steered clear of the tapping scandal ahead of the 36,000 mayoral elections, the first round of which will be on March 23.

“Whatever the origin of the scandals, they aren’t helping any of the main parties,” said Christian Delporte, professor of history and political communication at the University of Versailles. “Only abstention and the extremes” are helped.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.