Defiant Villepin hits back after press 'liar' claims

4th May 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, May 4, 2006 (AFP) - French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin hit back Thursday over claims he lied about a dirty tricks campaign at the heart of his government, denying he ordered a secret enquiry into his political rival Nicolas Sarkozy.

PARIS, May 4, 2006 (AFP) - French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin hit back Thursday over claims he lied about a dirty tricks campaign at the heart of his government, denying he ordered a secret enquiry into his political rival Nicolas Sarkozy.

He used a monthly press conference to dismiss calls for his resignation over the so-called Clearstream affair, despite accusations that he has repeatedly deceived parliament and the public.

But in a sign of the prime minister's growing isolation, the right-wing newspaper Le Figaro — normally a loyal government supporter — published a stinging editorial, joining the Socialist Party (PS) opposition in openly branding him a liar.

"Why did he repeatedly — let us dare to say the word — lie about the mention of his ... rival's name in connection with these murky dealings?" the paper asked.

Villepin told journalists he was "deeply hurt" by the accusations against him, and that though the government was going through "a difficult test" he had no intention "of turning at any moment from the mission I have been set."

The prime minister, 52, also repeated his denial of the key claim weighing against him: that as foreign minister in January 2004, acting under President Jacques Chirac's instructions, he ordered a top intelligence official to look into claims Sarkozy had a secret foreign bank account.

Refuting the intelligence official's leaked sworn account, Villepin said again that Sarkozy's name was not mentioned at their meeting in connection with secret accounts and that Chirac "at no point needed to give me instructions."

The scandal has plunged the French government into disarray less than a month after Villepin was forced to back down over his contested youth jobs contract, which brought millions onto the streets.

With a year to go before elections, the prime minister and president are increasingly labelled as lame ducks, despite their attempts to focus national attention on economic recovery and falling unemployment.

The scandal has its roots in claims by a mystery informant that a number of politicians, business leaders and intelligence figures used the Clearstream clearing-bank in Luxembourg to handle illegal commissions paid after the sale of French warships to Taiwan.

The claims turned out to be bogus, but Sarkozy — who is head of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) as well as interior minister — believes he was the victim of a smear campaign ahead of the 2007 presidential elections in which he is a leading contender.

Sarkozy is known for his radical right-wing views, and desire for a clean break from the politics of Chirac and Villepin.

Two judges are conducting an investigation into the origin of the fake allegations, and in recent weeks have staged a series of high-profile searches, including raids at the headquarters of the foreign intelligence agency DGSE and the offices of Defence Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie.

Amid speculation that the judges now plan to interview Villepin, pressure has been increased in recent days by a series of leaks containing the testimony of the intelligence official, General Philippe Rondot.

According to Le Monde newspaper, Rondot told the two judges that at the decisive 2004 meeting, "among the people cited as account-holders at Clearstream the name of Nicolas Sarkozy was mentioned."

He also said that "Villepin told me the instructions he had received ... from M. Chirac. These instructions were the following: to check the validity of the list of accounts to see if the people cited did indeed possess a Clearstream account."

But Villepin received some succour from a poll in Le Parisien newspaper Thursday, which showed most people have little understanding of the complex affair. Only 33 percent said he should resign.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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