PARIS (Reuters) - A political row over revelations that French investigators had tapped the phone of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy took a new turn on Wednesday after Francois Hollande's government acknowledged it knew of the surveillance.
Sarkozy's opposition conservatives, torn by in-fighting and facing allegations over irregular party funding, jumped on the news to accuse Hollande of political dirty tricks to discredit them ahead of local elections later this month.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault confirmed a report in satirical newspaper Le Canard enchaine that both he and Justice Minister Christiane Taubira had been made aware of the phone-tapping on February 26. Taubira said on Monday she was not aware of the surveillance before it was leaked to local media last week.
"The justice minister received the information, subsequently passed on to me, that a new investigation had been opened regarding extremely serious matters. That's when I learnt of it (the phone-tapping)," he told France 2 television late Tuesday.
Ayrault stressed however that neither he nor Taubira had seen transcripts from the phone-tapping, which investigators launched last year after allegations that late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi funded Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign.
Sarkozy, who has dropped hints he is preparing to run against for president in 2017 after being ousted by Hollande in 2012, has denied all wrongdoing.
Separately, Paris chief state prosecutor Francois Falletti confirmed that investigators had informed the government of "certain elements" of the inquiry, without specifying whether that also included details picked up by the phone-tapping.
"Prosecutors escalate up to the justice ministry all the important elements," Faletti told Europe 1 radio.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls told RTL radio he understood that a report in le Parisien newspaper that Hollande himself had been made aware of the phone-tapping was correct.
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 came to office in May 2012. His poll ratings are at record lows for failing to tackle unemployment and start turning around the euro zone's second largest economy.
Christian Jacob, parliamentary speaker for the conservative UMP party, said the acknowledgment by the government 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 current leader, Sarkozy protege Jean-Francois Cope, was involved in irregular party funding practices - an allegation Cope rejects.
"This is just a diversion tactic," Socialist Party parliamentary chief Bruno Le Roux told Reuters. "Parliament can't open its own inquiry in something which is already a matter for judicial authorities."
(reporting by Mark John and Jean-Baptiste Vey; editing by Brian Love and Mark John)