or, is de Villepin on the way out?
Siegfried Mortkowitz reports that a Murky scandal threatens to topple French prime minister
[French Prime Minister Dominique de] Villepin is now suspected of involvement in a shadowy scheme to discredit his bitter rival, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.
. . .
French investigating magistrates are currently looking for the informer who in June 2004 sent one of their colleagues a list of 800 people and companies holding secret accounts at the Luxembourg-based financial clearing house Clearstream.
Included on the list were four former or current candidates for the French presidency, the neo-liberal Alain Madelin, former interior minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement, former finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Sarkozy.
The four men were all accused of having foreign bank accounts into which illegal funds had been channelled via Clearstream.
The judicial inquiry into the smear campaign was initiated after an investigation revealed that Sarkozy and the others were not guilty of the allegations. However, that raised the question of who sent the list and why.
Several French newspapers and the author of a controversial book about Clearstream, Denis Roberts, have suggested that the man who compiled the list and sent it to the magistrate was a 40-year-old Franco-Lebanese computer whiz named Imad Lahoud.
Lahoud is related to the pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and, through his father-in-law, reportedly has close ties to French President Jacques Chirac.
Since Chirac made his feelings clear last year during the Hariri funeral, the Chirac-Emile Lahoud ties are strained – but that doesn’t mean they’ve always been.
More significantly, he [Imad Lahoud] once worked for the French intelligence service DSGC and also collaborated with one of France’s most successful spies, General Philippe Rondot.
Rumours carried by French media connected Villepin to the murky affair and the scheme to discredit Sarkozy, to damage his chances for the 2007 presidential elections.
After all, while Jacques views Villepin as his annointed heir, Sarkozy clearly challenged that. Jacques didn’t take all this lying down: According to the French satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné, President Jacques Chirac had been listening in on his archrival Nicolas Sarkozy’s phone calls. Following Chirac’s stroke last September, Villepin’s authority was challenged by Sarkozy at the weekly cabinet meetings during Chirac’s absence. Siegfried Mortkowitz continues,
According to the former spy’s statement, it was not Villepin who charged him with investigating the Taiwan frigate sale, but Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, in November 2003.
Rondot said that he was given a computer printout at that time, by Villepin confidante Jean-Louis Gergorin, a top manager in the European aerospace conglomerate EADS, that supposedly contained a list of Clearstream clients, including the names of French politicians, whom he was told by the Defence Ministry to ignore.
However, Rondot said he was summoned by Villepin to a meeting on January 9 at which Gergorin was also present.
Rondot said that at this meeting Villepin, then foreign minister, ‘informed me of instructions he had received on the subject of the Clearstream list from Jacques Chirac.’
Villepin then told him to go beyond the original instructions and investigate the politicians on the list.
‘Mr Sarkozy’s name was mentioned,’ Rondot was reported to have told the magistrates, clearly contradicting Villepin’s public statements.
More than that, notes Rondot made during the meeting suggested that Villepin was obsessed with Sarkozy.
The Clearstream scandal has exposed the personal animosity at the top of the government, with Mr Sarkozy accusing the prime minister of sitting on a secret service report that cleared his name.
This animosity should come as no surprise to long-term readers of this blog; do bear in mind that Villepin, Sarko, and Chirac belong to the same political party, the UMP.
Clearstream, however, has become a civil plaintiff in the investigation by French magistrates of false allegations of money laundering by French executives and politicians, in an effort to protect the company’s image.
As Mortkowitz explains,
However, coming so soon after the youth jobs law embarrassment, the growing scandal could be enough to put Villepin’s position at the head of the French government at risk.
With one year to go in his presidency, Chirac may simply decide that he cannot afford to have his legacy tarnished by a prime minister that has no credibility.
The question is, if Villepin goes the way of Raffarin, who will Chirac appoint? The Interior Minister is the 2d-ranking post in the government, and Sarko holds that post.
In other Chirac news, Jacques’s got a plan afoot to finance the PA through the World Bank, and denies funding a “Google killer”, even as he announced Tuesday (April 25) a 2 billion euro (about $2.5 billion) plan to back a series of projects including one on a Franco-German search engine intended to rival Google.