PARIS A row over judicial phone-tapping of Nicolas Sarkozy escalated on Friday as French President Francois Hollande denounced his predecessor's allegation that judges were acting like secret police from ex-communist East Germany.
Sarkozy, expected to run for re-election in 2017, wrote in Le Figaro newspaper that judges who ordered the tapping of his phone as part of an investigation into alleged illegal campaign financing had "broken fundamental principles" of justice.
That prompted a backlash from Hollande two days before the first round of local elections in which his Socialists risk heavy losses and Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front party is looking to make gains.
"Any comparison with dictatorships is intolerable," Hollande told a late-night briefing of reporters at an EU summit.
"Our country is democratic, proud of being recognized as based on human rights where justice - at least as long as I am president - can act independently," Hollande said.
The open letter by Sarkozy, who officially retired after losing a 2012 bid for re-election against Hollande, was his first public comment on the phone-tappings since Le Monde newspaper revealed their existence this month.
The letter came after his lawyer said he would file a legal complaint against media leaks of extracts of the phone-tapping, which are being conducted as part of an investigation into the funding of Sarkozy's successful 2007 election campaign.
"Even today, anyone calls me should know they are being listened to," Sarkozy wrote. "This is not a clip from that wonderful film about East Germany and the Stasi' activities, 'The Lives of Others'... This is France."
Sarkozy has denied all wrongdoing.
Socialist government ministers compared him to former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who while in office accused judges and prosecutors of mounting a politically-motivated conspiracy against him. Berlusconi has been banned from public office for two years over a tax fraud conviction.
"What we're seeing is on the level of Berlusconi, in other words it's an open challenge to institutions," Labour Minister Michel Sapin said on iTele.
"Casting doubt on a legal decision is the behavior of a thug, not that of a former president of the Republic."