PARIS - Nicolas Sarkozy was fighting for his political survival Thursday as his lawyer grasped for a lifeline by accusing France's Socialist government of orchestrating a plot to destroy the former president.
Sarkozy's hopes of a comeback in the 2017 presidential election were widely seen as having been seriously, if not fatally, compromised by the publication of tapped phone conversations between him and his lawyer.
Excerpts from the conversations, published by news website Mediapart, appear to implicate Sarkozy and his lawyer Thierry Herzog in an attempt to pervert the course of justice in connection with a series of overlapping corruption investigations.
Herzog came out fighting Thursday, insisting the "truncated" transcripts provided no evidence of any wrongdoing and announcing that he would file a legal complaint over the leaks, which, he suggested, could have been the work of current President Francois Hollande.
"I will be asking the prosecutor of the republic, via a formal complaint, to order an investigation aimed at identifying the authors of these violations of judicial secrecy," Herzog said.
"I think he should be able to find them very easily." Mediapart's report followed similar but less detailed revelations in respected daily Le Monde earlier this month. Herzog said it was no coincidence that Mediapart's founder and Hollande shared a lawyer, or that the president had received the two Le Monde journalists following publication of their report.
"The facts would seem to speak for themselves," Herzog said.
A serious crime
If genuine, the recorded conversations suggest Sarkozy got a friendly judge to try to influence the outcome of legal deliberations in one of France's highest courts; had a mole in a senior position who tipped him off about a planned police raid on his offices; and was contemptuous of the judges investigating him - Herzog describing them as "bastards" in one of the conversations.
Such interference in the judicial process is regarded as extremely serious under French law. If proven, the crime of "influence peddling" carries a potential sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
Herzog denied that his "bastards" comment was incriminating.
"You should not read too much into a private conversation where I allow myself to let go a little," he said. "Have you never said things on the phone that go beyond what you actually think." Sarkozy is not currently charged with any offence in any of the various investigations, which are all linked to his election campaigns and their financing.
There has never been any suggestion that he sought personal enrichment.
A charge that he accepted envelopes stuffed full of cash from France's richest woman when she was too frail to know what she was doing was dropped last year, although one of his closest aides is among 10 people sent for trial in that case.
Sarkozy is still being investigated over claims he accepted millions from former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi for his successful 2007 presidential campaign and that, once president, he rigged a disputes settlement procedure which resulted in disgraced tycoon Bernard Tapie receiving 400 million euros from the state.
The Tapie payout, it is alleged, was delivered in return for political support in 2007.
A legal lifeline?
It was while probing the Libya claims that judges got authorisation to tap Sarkozy's phones, which they did for months before realising that he and Herzog had other handsets registered in assumed names that they used for conversations of a sensitive nature.
French media were virtually unanimous Thursday in declaring Sarkozy's political career to be on the brink of extinction.
"Even if the judicial consequences are not yet known... the political cost for someone who dreamt of taking his revenge in 2017 is already exorbitant," said Le Parisien.
Regional daily L'Alsace added: "If the judges don't do it, it is public opinion that could condemn Sarkozy to retirement from political life." The ruling Socialists have also been quick to write Sarkozy's political obituary but the rightwing leader is not dead yet: if Herzog can prove there was political involvement in the leak of the transcripts then they are likely to be declared inadmissible as evidence in any case.