Clearstream: a guide to a murky dirty tricks story

4th May 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, May 14, 2006 (AFP) - For three weeks the French government has been reeling from a murky corruption scandal featuring mystery informants, secret bank accounts, extra-judicial probes and an alleged plot to destabilise Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

PARIS, May 14, 2006 (AFP) - For three weeks the French government has been reeling from a murky corruption scandal featuring mystery informants, secret bank accounts, extra-judicial probes and an alleged plot to destabilise Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has been openly accused of lying, and is under pressure to resign.

Here are some key questions and answers on the so-called Clearstream affair.

Q. What are the origins of the affair?

A. In mid-2004 an unknown informant sent letters and a CD-ROM to a judge who was looking into irregularities in the sale of French warships to Taiwan 10 years earlier. Included were lists of names of supposed beneficiaries of illegal commissions who used a clearing-bank in Luxembourg called Clearstream. Among several politicians named was Nicolas Sarkozy, the head of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) who is a favourite for 2007 presidential elections.

Q. What happened next?

A. An investigation by the domestic intelligence agency DST concluded that the lists were fake. A judicial enquiry was then launched to establish the identity of the mystery snitch and his motives for smearing Sarkozy and the others.

Q. So it was a put-up job. Why all the noise?

A. The affair has vast political ramifications because of the well-known rivalry between Villepin and President Jacques Chirac on the one hand, and Sarkozy on the other. Sarkozy believes he was the victim of a dirty tricks campaign.

Q. Is anyone seriously suggesting that Villepin and Chirac dreamed up the idea of the Clearstream lists in order to smear Sarkozy. Surely that is far-fetched?

A. That allegation is indeed hard to sustain. Much more plausible is that Chirac and Villepin became aware quite early of the allegations against their government colleague. Instead of declaring them publicly or handing the dossier to the judiciary, the charge is that they tried to exploit the information for their own ends.

Q. What evidence is there for that?

A. There has been a series of leaks in the French press which raise serious questions about Villepin and Chirac's version of events. A senior intelligence official General Philippe Rondot has said under oath that in January 2004 he was charged by Villepin — who was then foreign minister — with running a secret enquiry to see if the allegations against Sarkozy were true. Rondot also says that Villepin invoked Chirac's authority to order the enquiry. This has been repeatedly denied by Villepin before the National Assembly, while Chirac has denounced what he sees as a media witchhunt.

Q. So if Chirac and Villepin didn't concoct the lists, who did?

A. There we are in very murky territory. It looks almost certain that the mystery informant who sent the lists to the judge is a top official at the European defence company EADS. Jean-Louis Gergorin is a highly regarded, but highly discreet, foreign affairs specialist who has known Villepin for 25 years. The prevailing theory is that Gergorin may have originally used the Clearstream account lists as part of an internal power-struggle at EADS. When he failed to attract the attention of the government, he added the names of politicians. But we still do not know if Gergorin actually compiled the lists, or was manipulated by someone else. He is to be questioned by the judges.


Q. What are the implications for Villepin, Chirac and the government?

A. Villepin is under intense pressure to resign. Even the right-wing newspaper Le Figaro has accused him of lying. But as he showed in the debacle over his youth jobs programme — which he was forced to abandon last month after weeks of mass protests — Villepin is not the resigning kind. Another factor that suggests he will stay in office is that there is no obvious alternative as prime minister. Sarkozy certainly does not want the job, because he wants to present himself as the candidate of right-wing change in 2007. One source of speculation is that Sarkozy himself may leave the government to distance himself from the mess. So Chirac and Villepin may well be destined to stumble on together for another year.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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