Nicolas Sarkozy has never been known for his literary culture. Indeed, he is reputed to be keener on Rolex watches than on books.

Yet the former French head of state is said to have taken a sudden interest in one of Paris’ most prestigious publishing houses, which is now in uproar over claims that he is meddling in its affairs.

Recently, five celebrated authors have quit Fayard, a pillar of French literary circles since its foundation in 1857, among them Virginie Grimaldi, 45, France’s second-best-selling contemporary writer.

Others are threatening to follow suit, with rival publishers ready to sign them up as soon as they do.

“Independence is my honor.”

All allege, explicitly or implicitly, that Fayard has lost its independence since the recent appointment of Isabelle Saporta, 46, as its new managing director.

They claim that Saporta, a journalist by trade, is under the influence of Sarkozy, the right-wing strongman who was president of France from 2007 to 2012.

The row has its origins in La Haine (The Hatred), a book written by two investigative journalists, Gérard Davet, 55, and Fabrice Lhomme, 56, and published by Fayard in 2019, on corruption and feuding in the French center-right. The work claimed notably that Sarkozy, 67, had broken the rules on campaign funding when standing for re-election in 2012 – an offense for which he was given a 12-month prison sentence last year.

Sarkozy has long claimed that the book was unfair and that the authors paid their sources to dish the dirt on him, which they deny. Saporta backed Sarkozy, who sits on the board of Hachette, the publishing giant that owns Fayard.

“In this business, he’s the victim,” she said. “It’s not because it’s about Nicolas Sarkozy that you can … pay a source to do an investigation that is biased against him.”

Lhomme reacted angrily. “It’s totally false. And Isabelle Saporta has seriously called into question our integrity by spreading this rumor.” He and Davet said they would no longer allow Fayard to publish their work.

Sarkozy has long claimed that the book was unfair and that the authors paid their sources to dish the dirt on him, which they deny.

Victor Castanet, 32, the author of Les Fossoyeurs (The Gravediggers), a best-selling work on abuse in care homes, followed suit, describing Saporta’s comments as “totally unacceptable”. Jacques Attali, 78, a hugely influential economist and thinker, said he was leaving too, adding that he wanted his future books to be published by Sophie de Closets, 44, Fayard’s former managing director.

Sarko M’a Tuer (Sarkozy Killed Me) was written by two Le Monde journalists, Fabrice Lhomme and Gérard Davet.

But the biggest blow to Fayard was the loss of Grimaldi, the author of feel-good novels that often turn on family intrigue. The Bordeaux-born writer is a literary phenomenon, with her first six books selling a total of more than 3.5 million copies and her seventh, Les Possibles (The Possibles), published last summer, adding almost a million, according to Le Monde.

“My values and my beliefs are no longer in tune with the direction that the [publishing] house is taking,” she said.

Her comment was taken as reference not only to Sarkozy’s alleged meddling but also to a plan by Vincent Bolloré, 70, a billionaire tycoon, to take over Hachette. Saporta’s critics say she will allow Bolloré to interfere in Fayard, stopping the publication of works likely to displease him or his wealthy friends.

Saporta refuted the allegation, describing herself as a “left-wing, ecologist investigative journalist”.

She added: “Independence is my honor and it is, above all, an essential demand of our authors.”

Adam Sage is the Paris correspondent for The Times of London. He has covered five presidential elections and countless scandals