More than a decade after the events in question, France is confronting what some here are calling a posthumous Watergate, a presidential scandal complete with illegal bugging, enemies lists, executive privilege and lacking only a president alive to answer for it.
The scandal involves the secret wiretapping of lawyers, journalists, politicians, actors and union leaders by a domestic spy cell that reported to Francois Mitterrand, president from 1981 to 1995, who died last year.
The existence of the disbanded cell and details of its clandestine operations in the early 1980s were disclosed in journalists' investigative reports and court documents beginning in 1993. Mitterrand had dismissed questions about the affair, but the wiretapping scandal erupted again two months ago when police found a cache of secret documents in a rented garage in the town of Plaisir, just outside Paris.
The archive, maintained by Christian Prouteau, the onetime head of the wiretapping unit, suggested that Mitterrand and his staff used what was supposed to be an anti-terrorism agency to monitor conversations of private citizens whose behavior they found threatening, bothersome or merely interesting.
According to press reports, some transcripts of such conversations were marked with Mitterrand's handwritten notation, "vu" ("seen"). According to one of the investigating journalists, Jean-Marie Pontaut, this was the smoking gun that had eluded them for nearly four years.
The rekindled scandal, dubbed "Big Ears," has touched off a debate here on personal privacy and state secrets. The presidential eavesdroppers, thundered commentator Herve Gattegno in the newspaper Le Monde, "took for state secrets what were only the chief of state's secrets" and "presented as enemies of the state those who were denigrating the prince."
According to published reports, roughly 2,000 telephone conversations were recorded secretly between 1983 and 1986 by the blandly named Interministerial Control Group, an agency operating literally underground in Paris's Invalides compound, only yards from where Napoleon is buried. Possible justifications for the taps remain hidden under a blanket of confidentiality labeled "defense secrets."
The wiretapping targets reportedly included a French journalist, Jean-Edern Hallier, who was believed to be preparing to disclose the existence of Mazarine Pingeot, Mitterrand's daughter by his longtime mistress -- which actually was an open secret in certain circles in Paris.
Pingeot, who attended Mitterrand's 1996 funeral with her mother and is now a reluctant celebrity here, was in danger of being kidnapped, according to one rationale for the wiretap offered by authorities.
Another wiretap was more transparently political: telephone conversations among journalists planning to spring an unexpected interviewer -- Hallier again -- on Mitterrand during a live television program. For reasons that became clear only later, the president canceled his appearance.
Why actress Carole Bouquet was selected for a wiretap is a question that has stumped French journalists. Two theories being advanced are Bouquet's relationship at the time to a man with ties to Third World radicals and Mitterrand's personal curiosity about one of the most beautiful women in France.
The reemergence of the wiretapping affair has prompted French commentators to rage against Kafkaesque government pronouncements -- documents that define state secrets as state secrets themselves, for example -- and against the Orwellian overtones of a government with Big Ears. The nation's monarchical traditions are cited to explain the shroud of secrecy that surrounds the actions of the powerful as well as the endemic passivity of the French populace toward the special privileges of the elect.
"The French love secrecy the way they love wine -- to keep it as much as to drink it," wrote the authors of a recent report in L'Express magazine on national attitudes toward privacy. The French attitude toward secrecy, the magazine concluded from its surveys, is of "a colossal ambiguity that extends sometimes to open hypocrisy."
There is no more vibrant symbol of that than the figure Mitterrand has become in death. He hid from the French something they readily forgive -- the existence of Mazarine Pingeot -- but also something they do not: a serious case of prostate cancer that was diagnosed at the outset of his first term and that ultimately felled him eight months after he left office.
Both surprise and shrugs greeted Mitterrand's open discussion in his last years of the fact that in World War II, before he joined the anti-Nazi Resistance, he had served the pro-Nazi Vichy government.
Pontaut characterized public reaction to the wiretapping revelations the same way. "They're indignant, but not completely; they're pretty used to it," he said. "And after all, it happened more than 10 years ago. If this had come out at the time, it would have been a different thing altogether."
Still, France's "Watergate squared," as Liberation newspaper editor Serge July termed the scandal, comes at a time when, here as elsewhere, people are disillusioned with their governing class and inclined to believe the worst about them.
Standards of political conduct in France appear to have notched upward some. A quarter-century ago, during the Watergate era, the French snickered at American public outrage. Many were plainly incredulous that a U.S. president could be brought down by what they saw as mere personal dishonesty and political shenanigans.
Although Mitterrand headed the Socialists, now out of power, the incumbent center-right government of Prime Minister Alain Juppe was put on the spot by the wiretapping revelations just as it was preparing to call the French legislative elections that were announced Tuesday.
When Gilles Menage -- a former senior aide to the late president and chief wiretapper Prouteau's ex-boss -- sought to defend his name and Mitterrand's against the implications of the wiretapping documents, the man now in sole charge of defense secrets, Juppe, refused him permission. Nevertheless, Menage told his story to the judge investigating the affair and to the news media, denying knowledge of some taps and seeking to justify others.
Meanwhile, facing an outcry from, among others, opposition Socialist leader Lionel Jospin and Francois Leotard, a key member of the governing majority, Juppe bounced the question of whether the wiretaps involved defense secrets to a quasi-independent commission set up six years ago to vet wiretaps proposed by government agencies and monitor the proliferation of electronic eavesdropping in the private sector.
Paul Bouchet, president of the commission, said last week that unauthorized wiretapping of private citizens is much more serious -- and much more current -- than the Mitterrand case he is investigating. Bouchet estimated the present number of illegal taps -- placed by industrial spies, private investigators and others with easy access to bugging technology -- at more than 100,000.