Le Monde, one of France’s leading newspapers, claimed that government security officials illegally hacked the phones of one of its reporters last summer in order to protect President Nicholas Sarkozy from politically damaging leaks.

The centre-left paper alleges it has proof that it was targeted by the counter-intelligence services to protect Sarkozy’s private interests.”

Specifically, Le Monde has accused the the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur (DCRI), France security service, of hacking the phone records of a reporter named Gérard Davet.

Sylvia Zimmerman, an independent examining magistrate, uncovered documents that DCRI sent to the telephone operator Orange requesting records of the calls Davet made or received between July 12 and 16 last year. Typically, such requisitions are granted only when state security is perceived to be threatened.

In a front-page editorial, Le Monde declared: We now know that the government lied.”

Davet is one of Sarkozy’s greatest headaches in the press. Last summer he wrote a series of articles which detailed the president’s connections to Lillaine Bettencourt, the wealthiest woman in France. He has now just co-authored a book called “Sarkozy, He Kills Me” in which Isabelle Prévost-Desprez, a judge, stated she has evidence that Sarkozy received an illegal donation of 150,000 euros ($215,000) from Bettencourt, the L’Oreal heiress, during the 2007 election.

Under French law, private citizens can only donate up to 7,500 euros per year to a political party.

The developments pose new problems for Sarkozy who already faces an uphill re-election battle next year.

Sarkozy has dismissed Le Monde’s claims, citing that his government was simply seeking to identify a mole in the Justice Ministry who was suspected of leaking classified information.

Interior Minister Claude Gueant also denied that the counter-intelligence operation was tantamount to spying.

The gathering of telephone communications is quite different from eavesdropping, the minister told reporters.

Reporters Without Borders, an activist group, said journalists’ right to protect sources has been deliberately trampled on by the French intelligence services, not for national security reasons but to protect top government officials from embarrassing revelations.