PARIS (AFP) - Mr Nicolas Sarkozy is suspected of attempting to pervert the court of justice on the basis of phone taps ordered by judges investigating his links with ex-Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi, it emerged on Friday.
The revelation was the latest dramatic development in the labyrinthine web of corruption cases threatening to ensnare the former French president and destroy his chances of a political comeback.
Judges started tapping Mr Sarkozy's phones last year after opening a formal investigation into allegations that the late former Libyan dictator Gaddafi helped finance his 2007 election campaign, according to respected daily Le Monde.
Judicial sources confirmed to AFP that a recorded call between Mr Sarkozy and his lawyer Thierry Herzog was the basis for a new investigation opened last week into a suspected attempt to obtain, via a friendly judge, inside information about ongoing - and top secret - proceedings before one of France's highest courts.
The proceedings arise from another election financing scandal in which Mr Sarkozy was embroiled and could have a profound influence on the outcome of yet another corruption case, centred on a 400-million-euro (S$700 million) state payout to disgraced tycoon Bernard Tapie.
Mr Herzog said Friday that Mr Sarkozy "is probably still being tapped," and denounced what he said was a politically motivated plot against his client.
"There was no attempt to pervert the course of justice and in due course this monstrous violation will be shown to have been a political affair," the lawyer told AFP.
An investigation into allegations that Mr Sarkozy accepted millions of euros from Gaddafi was opened in April 2013 on the basis of claims made by one of the dictator's sons, his interpreter and the man who allegedly delivered the cash.
According to Le Monde, the judges in charge of the Libya probe quickly decided they would be justified in tapping the phones of Mr Sarkozy and two of his former ministers Claude Gueant and Brice Hortefeux.
In December, they discovered that both Mr Sarkozy and his lawyer, Mr Herzog, had acquired second phones which they used exclusively for conversations between them.
It was once these phones were tapped that evidence which has formed the basis for the probe launched last week came to light, according to Le Monde.
In one of the recorded conversations, Mr Sarkozy and his lawyer discussed the possibility of approaching a senior judge in connection with a case before France's Court of Cassation.
DIARIES HOLD THE KEY
The Court is due to rule next week on whether examining magistrates investigating another election-financing scandal acted legally, notably in relation to the confiscation of Mr Sarkozy's diaries.
The diaries were seized in connection with a probe into alleged illegal financing of Mr Sarkozy's UMP party by France's richest women Liliane Bettencourt, 91.
Charges that Mr Sarkozy had taken advantage of the L'Oreal heiress when she was too frail to know what she was doing were dropped in October 2013.
But ten other people, including his former campaign treasurer Eric Woerth, have been sent for trial over the allegations that UMP officials were handed envelopes stuffed with cash from the Bettencourt coffers.
The ruling on the handling of the Bettencourt case is crucial because it has the potential to wreck investigators' attempts to build a case over the payout Tapie received from the state in connection with the collapse of the Credit Lyonnais bank.
Mr Sarkozy is suspected of having rigged a dispute-settlement procedure to ensure Tapie got the cash as a thank-you for the tycoon, previously a Socialist minister, supporting him in the 2007 election.
According to Le Monde, the diaries are crucial to the case against Mr Sarkozy because they show how close he was to Tapie, who has several corruption convictions, including one for match-fixing when he was the boss of Olympique Marseille football club.
If the diaries are ruled to have been seized illegally in the Bettencourt case they will also become inadmissible as evidence in the Tapie affair.
The latest Sarkozy developments came two days after an unrelated scandal erupted with the revelation that private conversations and meetings he had while president had been secretly recorded by a close aide.
The former president's request for an emergency injunction against further publication of the content of the tapes will be heard by a court on Monday.
The extracts published so far have included some mildly embarrassing material - aides referring to Mr Sarkozy as "the dwarf" for example - but nothing explosive.