Sat, Dec 23, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Judges question Villepin over alleged `smear plot'


French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin on Thursday was questioned by judges over an alleged smear campaign to damage his party rival, the center-right presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy.

The saga described as a French Watergate has threatened to mire Jacques Chirac's last months as president, revealing the poisonous feud in government between his protege, de Villepin, and the ambitious interior minister, Sarkozy, who is running as president promising a "clean break" with the Chirac era.

The alleged plot dates back to 2004 when an anonymous source wrote to a judge accusing politicians and business people of holding secret bank accounts with the Luxembourg bank Clearstream. The accounts were said to hold kickbacks from the US$2.8 billion sale of French frigates to Taiwan in 1991. On the list was the then-finance minister Sarkozy, who had made no secret of his hopes of succeeding Chirac as president.

Paris braced itself for what seemed to be the corruption scandal of the decade. But the judge quickly established that the accusations were totally false and the accounts did not exist.

Sarkozy complained that the affair had been used to discredit him and a judicial inquiry is now trying to establish who wrote the poison-pen letter and whether senior members of the government prolonged the bogus corruption scandal, using intelligence officials in a deliberate plot to smear Sarkozy's name.

Investigating judges have searched all corners of France's political hierarchy from senior spies to top politicians, interviewing Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and now de Villepin.

The judges were seeking to find out when and what de Villepin knew about the bogus bank account accusations and whether he kept the investigation going long after it became clear that Sarkozy had been unjustly accused.

Sarkozy's camp on Thursday repeated their calls for punishment if the investigation establishes a smear campaign was aimed at unsettling his presidential run.

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