Villepin under fresh pressure as dirty tricks scandal grows

3rd May 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, May 3, 2006 (AFP) - The French press and political opposition clamoured for more answers Wednesday in a murky corruption scandal which has plunged the country's troubled Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin into new depths of unpopularity.

PARIS, May 3, 2006 (AFP) - The French press and political opposition clamoured for more answers Wednesday in a murky corruption scandal which has plunged the country's troubled Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin into new depths of unpopularity.

On Tuesday Villepin fought back against allegations that he tried to smear his main political rival -- Interior Minister and ruling party chief Nicolas Sarkozy -- describing the so-called Clearstream affair as a "damp squib" and brushing off calls for his resignation.

But the prime minister remained under pressure, as newspapers argued that many questions in the affair were unresolved and the Socialist Party (PS) poured mockery on his weak and divided government.

"The whole government -- Villepin, Sarkozy, all the ministers -- they've lost the essential part of their authority," said Laurent Fabius, a former PS prime minister and a candidate for next year's presidential race.

"I am struck by the fact that there is no pilot in the aeroplane. The president (Jacques Chirac) isn't governing, and the government isn't governing ... In any other democratic country the government would have resigned," he said.

Villepin's centre-right administration has been sunk in disarray over claims that as foreign minister in January 2004 he ordered a senior intelligence official to investigate allegations that Sarkozy was running a secret account at the Luxembourg-based bank Clearstream.

The allegations -- which also targeted other politicians and business leaders -- turned out to be the fabrication of an as yet unidentified informant, and Sarkozy believes he was the victim of an attempt to blacken his name ahead of the 2007 presidential elections in which he is a leading contender.

Some in Sarkozy's entourage believe the bogus claims were leaked by the Villepin-Chirac camp, but others are simply angry that Villepin apparently failed to make public for many months information which he knew would exonerate his rival.

In a combative performance before the National Assembly on Tuesday, the prime minister denied ordering an investigation into "any political figure" and claimed he was himself the victim of a campaign to force his resignation.

But even normally supportive newspapers on Wednesday deplored the appearance of havoc inside the government, and urged complete transparency in its handling of the scandal.

"If it is true that services or figures linked to the state were involved closely or at a distance in a manipulation intended to undermine a political opponent, nothing can excuse it," said Le Figaro newspaper.

Le Figaro said several key questions remained unanswered, such as what exactly took place at the January 2004 meeting between Villepin and the intelligence chief Philippe Rondot; how much did Chirac know; and who was the original source behind the fake allegations.

Already undermined by last month's mass protests that forced him to withdraw a youth jobs contract, Villepin has seen his popularity ratings fall to just 20 percent -- the second lowest for a prime minister in the last 40 years.

"The latent rivalry between Dominique de Villepin and Nicolas Sarkozy has turned into open warfare," said the financial daily Les Echos, which said deputies from the ruling Union For a Popular Movement are increasingly gloomy about their prospects in next year's elections.

"The two men are avoiding direct attacks on each other, but the mutual suspicion is omnipresent, each posing as the victim of a manipulation rigged up by the other," it said.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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