'French Watergate': Villepin says has no cause to resign

2nd May 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, May 2, 2006 (AFP) - French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin on Tuesday ruled out resigning over allegations that he tried to smear his chief rival for the presidency, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

PARIS, May 2, 2006 (AFP) - French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin on Tuesday ruled out resigning over allegations that he tried to smear his chief rival for the presidency, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

Villepin said in a radio interview he was "indignant" at accusations he ordered an intelligence chief to probe Sarkozy in connection to a political and legal corruption inquiry known as the Clearstream affair.

"Nothing justifies my departure," the prime minister, who has faced calls to resign since the scandal erupted into public view, told Europe 1.

"I have been unjustly accused, on the basis of truncated statements.... I have never asked for an investigation into any political figure," he insisted.

Already weakened by mass protests that forced him to abandon his plans for labour reform last month, Villepin's job — and possibly the outcome of next year's presidential election — are on the line over the case.

Poll numbers give Villepin the second-lowest rating of any French prime minister in the past four decades, and his chances of succeeding Jacques Chirac next year are looking slim. Sarkozy is considered a far more popular candidate.

The Clearstream case, a complex political-legal affair, centres on murky accusations of corruption and money-laundering, loosely tied to a long-running probe into alleged kickbacks for the sale of French warships to Taiwan in 1991.

In 2004, a mysterious whistleblower sent a French judge a set of documents falsely accusing a string of businessmen and politicians, including Sarkozy, of holding secret accounts at the Luxembourg-based clearing house Clearstream.

Sarkozy suspects an attempt to blacken his name — a move that would profit both Villepin and President Jacques Chirac, who has long been hostile to his ambitious interior minister — and has filed suit for defamation.

While the hunt is still on for the whistleblower, Sarkozy's camp has rounded on Villepin, accusing him of ordering an intelligence probe into the claims and of failing to clear his name after they turned out to be fabricated.

Villepin — who was foreign minister at the time — says he ordered a discreet intelligence inquiry after the corruption claims were made, but said Tuesday that: "At no time was Nicolas Sarkozy mentioned in that conversation."

Villepin was expected to step up his defence in the coming days over what has been described here as a 'French Watergate'.

Speaking to members of the ruling UMP party, Villepin said Tuesday it was "essential to respond to this crisis in order to stand a chance of winning in 2007", in remarks quoted by one participant.

The prime minister was to face a grilling by parliament later Tuesday, ahead of an extraordinary cabinet called over the crisis.

Meanwhile Sarkozy, who heads the UMP, was quoted as saying after Villepin left the meeting that he was "determined to uncover the truth... whatever the consequences".

Villepin was drawn deeper into the case when Le Monde newspaper reported Friday that a senior intelligence officer told judges Villepin ordered him to investigate Sarkozy over the scandal during a meeting on January 9, 2004.

General Philippe Rondot, the officer named in Le Monde's report, says his comments were taken out of context, and categorically denied Tuesday that Villepin had asked him to investigate Sarkozy.

He told Le Figaro newspaper Sarkozy's name had been "thrown into the conversation" — along with other politicians.

Rondot said overzealous judges had wrongly interpreted a brief comment he jotted down during the meeting — talking of a "fixation on Sarkozy" — as an order from Villepin.

Le Monde itself on Wednesday published extracts from Rondot's confidential report on the case, filed in October 2004, which focused solely on the industrial implications of the case, and mentioned no politicians.

Investigators believe the claims were primarily linked to a power struggle at the European defence and aerospace giant EADS, several of whose top executives were targeted by the allegations.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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