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Sarkozy accused of violating press freedom in Bettencourt leak probe

French daily Le Monde has said it is suing President Sarkozy's office for illegally hunting down their government leak source. The story is just the latest twist in an ongoing scandal surrounding France's richest woman.

Nicolas Sarkozy

Sarkozy's office is accused of trying to silence the press

French daily newspaper Le Monde has accused the office of President Nicolas Sarkozy of breaching press freedom in a leak investigation.

France's most famous newspaper stated in a front-page editorial Monday it was suing for alleged "violation of the secrecy of sources." The paper accused the president's office of ordering a probe into its reporting of alleged illegal party funding by France's richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

Le Monde claimed the president's office broke a law designed to protect whistleblowers who leak information to the press.

Elysee denies accusations

Liliane Bettencourt

The Bettencourt affair has been dubbed 'Sarkogate'

Sarkozy's office firmly rejected Le Monde's claims. "The presidency … never gave any instructions to any service at all," an Elysee spokesperson told news agency AFP.

France's national police chief meanwhile confirmed that a ministerial aide had been accused of releasing restricted information.

Frederic Pechenard said evidence against the suspect was collected through a "legitimate investigation of the origin of leaks" performed under the auspices of the domestic intelligence service's "mission to protect the security of institutions."

The leak probe is only the latest episode in a case surrounding Bettencourt, who has been linked to alleged illegal funding of Sarkozy's campaign in a scandal that has embroiled Sarkozy's labor minister, Eric Woerth.

'Elysee tried to silence the press'

Le Monde accused the government of trying to silence reports on the L'Oreal affair and said it had filed suit after being told by police sources that intelligence officers had studied the telephone records of a justice ministry official to find out if he had spoken to reporters.

Women hold a banner reading Retirement during a protest in Marseille

Sarkozy's pension reforms have sparked nationwide protest

"The counter-espionage service was used to find the source of one of our reporters," the paper's news director Sylvie Kauffmann wrote in a front page article titled "The Elysee broke the law on protecting press sources."

Sarkozy's popularity rating is already close to a record low, as France faces a new round of nationwide union strikes on September 23 against the president's proposed pension reforms.

Author: David Levitz (AFP/AP)

Editor: Rob Turner

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