France's season of scandal stirs rivalries within Sarkozy's party

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his government have been hit with a slew of scandals in recent months, most recently a tangle with French media.

Francois Mori/AP
French President Nicolas Sarkozy waits for Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, on Nov. 30.

This fall in Paris, scandal is in. With only about one-third of France approving of his job, President Nicolas Sarkozy is trying to regain his political footing. But three separate "affairs" allegedly over corruption and spying tied to the French palace have the country's ruling right-center party at war with itself.

The most potent is the "Karachi affair," revived by fresh charges of political kickbacks from a 1994 Pakistani arms deal. Then there's the still-nagging "Bettencourt affair," with its revelations that a former Sarkozy minister allegedly helped L'Oréal heiress Lilian Bettencourt skirt taxes in exchange for funding Mr. Sarkozy's political campaign. Plus, there's a brewing scandal over alleged government spying on journalists.

The Karachi affair is a complicated, twisted mess involving a $1.2 billion submarine deal with Pakistan, the deaths of 11 French engineers in Karachi, and alleged hidden kickbacks of $2 million in campaign finance. It brings out the knives among current power players who rose in the ranks under former French President Jacques Chirac and his rival Édouard Balladur. This includes Sarkozy, new Defense Minister Alain Juppe, and Mr. Chirac's former prime minister, Dominique de Villepin.

Mr. de Villepin, who wants to unseat Sarkozy in 2012, has become one of his chief critics – attacking Sarkozy's policies and persona as only an elite patrician from the French right can do. He recently dropped a political atom bomb – alleging that Karachi "kickbacks" funded Mr. Balladur's failed presidential bid against Chirac that Sarkozy was orchestrating.

The affair's flammability is heightened by charges that the Frenchmen killed in Karachi in 2002 were not targeted by Al Qaeda, as originally thought, but by Pakistani intelligence operatives as retaliation for French nonpayment on submarine commissions.

Two judicial investigations are under way and Mr. Juppe and de Villepin are set to be deposed.

Sarkozy is still dogged by the summertime Bettencourt affair in which Ms. Bettencourt, France's wealthiest woman, was alleged to have been given assistance in avoiding taxes by Sarkozy's minister of pensions, Eric Woerth. Mr. Woerth has been let go after a series of tapes recorded by Bettencourt's butler opened a Pandora's box, possibly including shadow political funding for Sarkozy, overseen by Woerth.

It doesn't stop there. Out of the bitter teacup of Bettencourt emerges an ugly affair involving three journalists covering that scandal. Shortly after the government admitted "checking" journalists' phone records, the computers of reporters at Le Point, Le Monde, and Mediapart were stolen; two offices and the home of the Le Monde reporter were burgled. Surveillance tapes show the burglar at Le Point walking straight to the Bettencourt reporter's desk.

The weekly Canard Enchainé claims a secret service cell was formed to spy on journalists covering sensitive stories. Mediapart, which created a summer sensation by publishing the Bettencourt butler tapes (also stolen in the burglary), alleges that intelligence chief Bernard Squarcini operates the cell. Mr. Squarcini plans a libel suit against Carnard.

Mediapart reporter Thomas Cantaloube says, "On the staff, the unanimous reading is that the break-ins were designed to scare our sources. If sources aren't sure they won't be identified, they will stop talking to you."

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