Twelve Mitterand-era government officials and senior police officers will face trial in Paris for running a phone tapping operation 22 years ago for the then president, Francois Mitterand.

Originally conceived in 1982, an undercover listening room was set up at the Elysee palace along with a specialist anti-terrorist unit answerable to the president.

The team, however, ended up eavesdropping on journalists, lawyers and businessmen in a bid to discover embarrassing information and to squash potential scandals.

“Our tool was diverted for political ends, for dirty police work, for manipulation. The orders came from Mitterand’s office. I always denounced the abuses,” said Paul Barril, the unit’s deputy chief, who is to stand trial.

The 12 defendants, who also include Louis Schweitzer, the current head of Renault, are accused of breach of privacy and face a maximum sentence of one year imprisonment and a fine of €45,000 ($AUD 75,373).

However, it is anticipated that the accused will argue that they were following orders from above coming from Mitterand and other politicians, none of whom has been charged in connection with the affair.

Among those targeted by the undercover surveillance team were actress and Chanel model, Carol Bouquet, and Edwy Planel.

Planel, the current editor-in-chief at Le Monde newspaper, was at the time investigating claims, since shown to be true, that Barril and others framed evidence against alleged Irish terrorists.

Also under scrutiny was the late writer Jean-Edern Hallier, who had threatened to publish the story of Mitterrand’s secret daughter Mazarine.

On one occasion the Elysee unit allegedly learned that Hallier had been invited onto a television chat-show.

The programme was cancelled.

The scandal, described as France’s equivalent of Watergate, broke in 1993 when the existence of the secret listening-room was revealed.

But it took another 11 years for prosecutors to overcome a series of state secrecy orders decreed by governments of the left and right before the case could be brought to court.

Of those on trial, Schweitzer, 62, was a cabinet director for the Socialist Prime Minister Laurent Fabius between 1984 and 1986, when he is alleged to have transmitted phone-tap orders to the undercover cell.

Mitterand’s cabinet chief, Gilles Menage, 61, is also to face charges, as well as the unit’s chief, Christian Prouteau, 60.

Prouteau served as the head of an elite gendarme squad before being called on by Mitterand to set up the secret anti-terrorism unit following a bombing in central Paris in August 1982 which killed nine people.