Chirac hits back over Clearstream scandal

10th May 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, May 10, 2006 (AFP) - French President Jacques Chirac launched an offensive Wednesday over a growing dirty tricks scandal that is threatening to paralyse his government and bring a humiliating end to his decade-long rule.

PARIS, May 10, 2006 (AFP) - French President Jacques Chirac launched an offensive Wednesday over a growing dirty tricks scandal that is threatening to paralyse his government and bring a humiliating end to his decade-long rule.

In a surprise television statement made after a regular cabinet meeting, Chirac lashed out at "the dictatorship of rumour" dogging a judicial investigation into the scandal.

He also reaffirmed his support for embattled Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, saying he had "total confidence" in his conservative government.

But while the impromptu declaration was Chirac's fiercest defence yet over what has become known as the Clearstream affair, it looked unlikely to quell the rising tide of allegations and revelations that is swamping France's ruling party.

At stake is not only the survival of Villepin and his government -- already badly weakened from street protests last month that blocked a labour reform -- but also who is to succeed 73-year-old Chirac as president in elections next year.

"The republic is not a dictatorship of rumours, a dictatorship of slander," said Chirac, stooping and looking tired.

"Democracy is not the disrespect and exploitation to outrageous lengths of legal procedures under way," he said.

There was no mistaking that Chirac was talking about the Clearstream affair, though he did not mention it by name.

That affair started as an investigation into the alleged money-laundering of bribes paid from the sale of warships to Taiwan but has since ballooned into a dirty tricks imbroglio laying bare political divisions in the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).

Recent reports suggested that Villepin -- a Chirac protege -- used the Clearstream investigation to smear his chief rival for the presidency, Interior Minister and UMP leader Nicolas Sarkozy.

An article in a French investigative and satirical weekly, Le Canard Enchaine, on Wednesday also homed in on testimony in the case from a spymaster involved in the investigation who reportedly said Chirac had a secret account in Japan holding 45 million euros (57 million dollars).

Both Villepin and Chirac have denied the allegations targeting them, but the surprise declaration from Chirac on Wednesday was the strongest counter-attack yet offered by the president -- and a sign of how deep the threat is to his rule.

Although speculation is rife that Villepin could be forced to step down over Clearstream, Chirac signalled that he was not about to abandon his prime minister.

"I have full confidence in Dominique de Villepin's government to carry out the mission I have set it, and I expect him to accelerate further his actions," he said, talking up a slight drop in unemployment and a growing economy.

Chirac, who has led France since assuming the presidency in 1995, acknowledged that "of course there is the outlook of elections exciting individuals, but the presidential election is a year away. ... Right now it is governance that is needed."

The opposition Socialists, though, were smelling blood and were taking note of polls showing two-thirds of French voters no longer backed Chirac or Villepin.

Their leader in parliament, Jean-Marc Ayrault, said a no-confidence motion against Villepin's government would be lodged by the end of the week with a debate likely for next Tuesday.

The party's number two, Francois Rebsamen, told public television that early elections were a possibility.

If Chirac "is not able to restore order (in the country's leadership), then the question of his resignation is out there," he said.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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