'French Watergate': timeline of a political scandal

4th May 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, May 14, 2006 (AFP) - French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin's job was under threat on Saturday. He is accused of ordering a secret probe into his chief political rival, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, and of then lying to cover up the scandal.

PARIS, May 14, 2006 (AFP) - French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin's job was under threat on Saturday. He is accused of ordering a secret probe into his chief political rival, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, and of then lying to cover up the scandal.

The following is a chronology of the "Clearstream affair":


June: Inquiry opens into suspicions that kickbacks were paid to French officials for the 2.8-billion-dollar sale of French frigates to Taiwan in 1991. Investigation headed by judge Renaud van Ruymbeke.


January 9: Dominique de Villepin, then foreign minister, asks senior intelligence officer General Philippe Rondot to investigate "rumours" of corruption linked to the frigate deal. The details of their meeting — which have been gradually emerging — are pivotal to the case.

May 3 and June 14: Judge van Ruymbeke receives two letters and a CD-Rom, sent by an anonymous informer, which alleges high-profile people received illegal commissions worth millions of dollars from the frigate deal. The informer gives the numbers of their accounts at Luxembourg-based clearing bank Clearstream, which is alleged to have handled the illicit payments.  Among the businessmen and politicians mentioned are Sarkozy, then finance minister.

September 3: A defamation inquiry, headed by judges Jean-Marie d'Huy and Henri Pons, is launched following legal action by several of the industrialists targeted by the allegations.

November: The case takes a political turn, with Sarkozy accusing Villepin — his chief rival to become the centre-right's candidate in the 2007 presidential election — of keeping secret an intelligence report that show the corruption claims were fabricated.


December: Judge Van Ruymbeke establishes that the whistleblower's claims are bogus.


January: Sarkozy becomes a civil plaintiff in the defamation inquiry in order to gain access to the case files.

Late March/early April: Investigating magistrates search the offices of Airbus boss Gustave Humbert and the foreign intelligence service (DGSE) in a bid to reveal the whistleblower's identity.

April 13: The offices of Defence Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie and ex-spy chief General Rondot are searched.

April 28: Le Monde newspaper says Rondot told judges that Villepin had asked him, on January 9, 2004, to investigate Sarkozy on the orders of President Jacques Chirac. Villepin and Chirac deny the claims.

May 2: Villepin rules out resigning, saying he has been "unjustly accused". Rondot denies that Villepin had asked him to investigate any politicians. Le Monde publishes extracts from a report Rondot made to the defence ministry on the case, which does not mention any political figures.

May 3: Le Monde publishes leaks from Rondot's sworn testimony which contradict Villepin on several key points.

Rondot says the Clearstream account lists were discussed at the January 2004 meeting, that Sarkozy's name came up as one of the politicians listed, that Villepin asked Rondot to check out the claims, and that the order came from Chirac.

Villepin's and Chirac's office repeats their denials of the claims.

May 4: The right-wing Le Figaro newspaper, which until now backed Villepin, openly accuses him of lying. The prime minister again rules out resigning but ducks direct questions from the press over whether he lied.

Villepin nonetheless admits Sarkozy's name was mentioned at the January 2004 meeting but in his capacity as interior minister and not in relation to any secret accounts.

Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie says she was indirectly targeted after the media reveals the name of her partner, parliamentarian Patrick Ollier, has surfaced in closed-door discussions about Clearstream.

May 9: At his own request, Sarkozy is interviewed by a judge investigating the bogus corruption allegations.

A legal source says documents have been taken from the file.

Satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné says General Rondot has told magistrates of an investigation — unrelated to Clearstream — into reports that President Chirac has a secret 45.5-million-euro (57-million-dollar) account in Japan's Sowa Bank. Chirac denies the account ever existed.

May 10: Chirac reiterates his confidence in Villepin and attacks the "outrageous ... disrespect and exploitation ... of legal procedures".

The opposition Socialists officially request a vote of no-confidence in Villepin. The vote is set for May 16.

May 11: Le Monde publishes excerpts of hand-written notes kept by Rondot that show Chirac's direct involvement in ordering him to carry out the secret inquiry into his rival Sarkozy. The notes show Chirac and Villepin are aware of the political dangers if Rondot's investigation is made public.

May 12: Judges search the home of Imad Lahoud, a former computer expert at European aerospace company EADS who has worked for the intelligence service. He is thought to have had access to the Clearstream account lists and is a colleague of EADS vice-president Jean-Louis Gergorin, who is thought to be the mystery whistleblower.

May 13: Police say they have searched the homes of François Heilbronner — a former government colleague of Chirac's and father-in-law to Imad Lahoud — and of Lahoud's brother Marwan, head of European arms firm MBDA, in which EADS holds a major stake.

Sarkozy vows to continue as interior minister, dismissing calls from allies to distance himself from the scandal-hit government so as to boost his chances of becoming president in 2007. "I want justice, real justice, not political revenge," he says.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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