Power and lies: a French political thriller unfolds

20th April 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, April 20, 2006 (AFP) - A shadowy plot to smear a top politician, a power-struggle at a major defence group — a political thriller is unfolding in France as a probe into bogus charges of corruption moves closer to the inner circles of government.

PARIS, April 20, 2006 (AFP) - A shadowy plot to smear a top politician, a power-struggle at a major defence group — a political thriller is unfolding in France as a probe into bogus charges of corruption moves closer to the inner circles of government.

Two French judges are hunting for the identity of a mysterious informer who falsely accused a string of top politicians and businessmen — including Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy — of running secret bank accounts abroad.

The so-called 'Clearstream affair' has gathered momentum in recent weeks, with searches at the office of Defence Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, and the offices of senior French intelligence officials and industrialists.

Several newspapers have suggested that Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin's offices could be next on the list.

The case goes back to 2004, when a set of documents and CD-Roms were sent anonymously to the judge Renaud Van Ruymbeke, naming Sarkozy and a string of others as holders of secret accounts at the Luxembourg-based bank Clearstream.

Three businessmen — including Airbus number two Philippe Delmas — were also accused of receiving kickbacks from the 2.8-billion-dollar sale of French frigates to Taiwan in 1991, which Ruymbeke was investigating at the time.

A brief inquiry revealed the documents to be faked, and a defamation lawsuit was opened following legal action by Delmas and another industrialist.

Sarkozy — the centre-right favourite for next year's presidential election — suspects an attempt to discredit him, carried out with possible support from political rivals in his own camp, Villepin chief among them.

Determined to pin down those responsible for the smear, Sarkozy became a civil plaintiff in the lawsuit in January this year, in order to gain access to the case files.

He was followed this month by EADS, two ex-ministers — the Socialist Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the centre-left Jean-Pierre Chevènement — and the centre-right deputy Alain Madelin.

Investigators believe the claims may have been linked to a leadership struggle at the European defence and aerospace giant EADS, where Noël Forgeard took over as co-chief executive last year.

But the complex affair has also poisoned the already hostile relations between Sarkozy and Villepin, who as interior minister at the time ordered the DST French intelligence agency to look into the claims.

Sarkozy's supporters have accused the prime minister of keeping the DST's findings — which confirmed that the charges were bogus — under wraps.

Adding to the tension, the DST also suggested that EADS vice-chairman Jean-Louis Gergorin — an ally of the prime minister — could be the mysterious informer, although the executive denies all involvement.

Investigators searched Gergorin's Paris home and EADS offices early this month.

Meanwhile, Alliot-Marie said following Wednesday's cabinet meeting that the search of her office — and that of her former intelligence chief General Philippe Rondot — was "a mystery".

In a final twist, however, the satirical French weekly Le Canard Enchaîné suggested in its latest issue that the searches could in fact be linked to a shadowy affair implicating President Jacques Chirac.

During the search of Rondot's office, the paper said, the judges seized a folder belonging to a French magistrate who was accused by the presidency in 2001 of investigating claims that Chirac owned secret bank accounts in Japan.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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