By Mark John
PARIS (Reuters) - France's justice minister on Wednesday defied calls for her to quit after it emerged that she knew former President Nicolas Sarkozy's phone was being tapped, apparently contradicting an earlier statement from her.
Sarkozy's opposition conservatives accuse the government of using the surveillance, ordered as part of a party funding inquiry, to discredit them before this month's local elections in which President Francois Hollande's Socialists risk losing ground.
Justice Minister Christiane Taubira dismissed that accusation on Monday, saying she had not been informed about the phone-tapping before Le Monde newspaper revealed it last week.
Barely 24 hours later, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault acknowledged on television late on Tuesday that he and Taubira did know of the surveillance. The opposition then called for Taubira to resign.
But the justice minister, in a hastily arranged appearance at a regular news briefing after the weekly cabinet meeting, rejected those demands, saying she had been misunderstood.
"I did not have and do not have information on the date, length and content of the surveillance," she said, adding that she "could have been more precise" in her initial statement.
"No, I did not lie," she said. "No, I will not resign."
Ayrault gave his support to Taubira as he emerged from the cabinet meeting minutes later, telling reporters: "She has her place in the government."
Taubira, a favorite of the French left, came to prominence last year for pushing through laws making same-sex marriages legal in the face of fierce street protests.
Despite Ayrault's comments supporting Taubira, the affair has put Hollande's government on the defensive.
The opposition UMP party had itself been on the back foot over accusations of irregular party funding by its leader Jean-Francois Cope - which he denies - and leaked audio tapes revealing tensions in its leadership during the Sarkozy era.
Investigators launched the phone-tapping last year after allegations that the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi had funded Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign, a legal case that could yet cloud any political come-back by the 59-year-old.
Sarkozy, who has hinted he may run for president in 2017 after Hollande ousted him in 2012, has denied all wrongdoing.
The inquiry is still at a stage that remains secret under French legal procedure, precluding comment from investigating judges. No details of the conversations between Sarkozy and his lawyer that were under surveillance have been made public.
French voters go to the polls on March 23 and 30 to elect new city mayors in the first major mid-term test of Hollande's popularity since he took office in May 2012. His poll ratings are at record lows for failing to reduce unemployment and start turning around the euro zone's second-largest economy.
Christian Jacob, parliamentary speaker for the conservative UMP party, said the government's admission that it was aware of the phone-tapping was "extremely serious" and demanded an emergency session of parliament on the matter.
His opposite number accused the UMP of seeking to distract attention from allegations that its leader, Sarkozy protege Cope, was involved in irregular party funding practices.
"This is just a diversion tactic," Socialist Party parliamentary chief Bruno Le Roux told Reuters. "Parliament can't open its own inquiry into something which is already a matter for judicial authorities."
(Additional reporting by Chine Labbe and Jean-Baptiste Vey; Editing by Brian Love and Alistair Lyon)