PARIS, May 8, 2006 (AFP) - Rumours swirled over the fate of France's damaged prime minister Dominique de Villepin Monday, despite weekend denials from President Jacques Chirac that any reshuffle is planned in reaction to the dirty tricks scandal known as the Clearstream affair.
With a demoralised government plunging in the polls following claims of an internecine smear campaign, the future of the 52 year-old prime minister remained deeply uncertain after he was accused last week of lying to cover up his own alleged role.
Paris newspapers all carried speculation that Chirac could nominate Villepin's arch-rival — Interior Minister and ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) chief Nicolas Sarkozy — to replace him if the political damage from the Clearstream scandal gets any worse.
Sarkozy, 51, who is the leading right-wing candidate for next year's presidential elections, was said by colleagues to be reluctant to take on what is widely seen as the poisoned chalice of French politics, but might feel duty-bound to accept the prime minister's job if he was offered it.
Patrick Devedjian, a UMP deputy who is close to the interior minister, said Monday that Sarkozy would only agree to take on the post if he was allowed a free hand to carry out his own radical platform of reforms.
"Nicolas Sarkozy will have to implement his own project, in a way bringing forward the 'rupture' which he envisages for 2007 if he is elected president of the Republic," Devedjian told Le Monde newspaper.
A complex and sordid story of bogus corruption claims directed at Sarkozy as well as other French personalities, the Clearstream affair has cast the government into disarray at the start of Chirac's last year in office — offering an unhoped-for boon for the opposition Socialist Party (PS).
Last week the prime minister was forced onto the defensive over the leaked testimony of a senior intelligence official, who said that in January 2004 Villepin — then foreign minister — ordered him to conduct a secret enquiry into a list of alleged account-holders at the Clearstream bank in Luxembourg.
Sarkozy — whose name was on the list — believes he was the victim of a campaign to blacken his name ahead of the 2007 presidential race. His entourage suspects Villepin — if not of starting the false allegations — at least of exploiting them for his own ends.
Last week the government's internal divisions widened further when Defence Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie said she too was targeted in the Clearstream affair, because her partner UMP deputy Patrick Ollier was also on the fake list of account-holders.
Villepin has said repeatedly in interviews and before parliament that he did not order any enquiry into named account-holders, but his denials have failed to still the criticism — with even the generally pro-government newspaper Le Figaro last week accusing him of lying.
With Villepin's popularity rating falling to just 20 percent — the second lowest for a prime minister in the Fifth Republic — Chirac was reported by Le Monde at the weekend to have called in Sarkozy to discuss his possible nomination to the prime ministership.
But the Elysée palace then stepped in to scotch rumours of an imminent cabinet shake-up, saying the president has "complete and total confidence" in Villepin.
Le Monde newspaper reported Monday that Chirac would keep Villepin in office as long as the allegations do not come closer to the president himself — but that he is preparing his options in case the scandal escalates.
According to General Philippe Rondot — the intelligence official at the heart of the affair — Villepin told him in 2004 that his instructions to set up a secret enquiry came from Chirac himself. This was denied last week by the prime minister.
Much depended on any new developments in the investigation by two judges trying to find the source of the original fake claims. They are due to speak to Sarkozy later in the week.
Subject: French news
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