A new chapter in French scandal

Posted in Europe | 17-May-06 | Author: Katrin Bennhold| Source: International Herald Tribune

French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy delivers his speech at the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) party meeting in Paris May 13, 2006.
PARIS It has been likened to a political thriller, but the scandal that has been unfolding over the past two weeks is more like an overlong French drama - with new twists emerging every day, a good dose of existential angst and no certainty of an ending, let alone a happy one.

In the latest episode, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin - who along with President Jacques Chirac has been at the center of a tangled web of insinuations that the two tried to smear their political rival, Nicolas Sarkozy - survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament on Tuesday.

The failure of the motion had been widely expected; the governing center- right Union for a Popular Movement has an absolute majority in the National Assembly. But in a measure of how isolated the prime minister has become, several of the 30 lawmakers of the centrist Union for French Democracy, who traditionally back the government, joined leftist parties in demanding Villepin's departure. And some members of his own camp simply stayed away.

At the heart of the scandal is what is purported to be a list of bank accounts linking several top politicians to €900 million, or $1.2 billion, in kickbacks from a 1991 frigate sale to Taiwan.

The list first surfaced in 2004, and later proved to be false. But one name on it was that of Sarkozy, then the interior minister and now head of the governing party, who like Villepin has his eye on the presidency in next year's elections.

According to widespread reports in the media, Villepin, then foreign minister, asked a retired spy in January 2004 to investigate the people on the list, including Sarkozy, rather than demanding an official investigation.

Notes from the retired intelligence officer, General Philippe Rondot, which were seized by prosecutors in March and have since been leaked to the newspaper Le Monde, appear to indicate that Villepin was acting with the collusion of Chirac.

The implication of such top figures has set tongues wagging and journalists furiously investigating since Le Monde first published those purported notes and what it said were extracts from Rondot's testimony to judges on April 28.

Unanswered amid the swirl of speculation are key questions: Who compiled the list and who passed it anonymously to investigators three months after Villepin had ordered the secret inquiry by Rondot? Why did Villepin not go through regular channels? Why did he never inform Sarkozy of the allegations against him - and, once they had been leaked elsewhere, of the outcome of the Rondot inquiry, which concluded within six months that the list was fake?

Despite the questions hanging over him, and the inconsistencies in his strident denials of any shenanigans, Villepin remains in office. Under the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, the prime minister reports neither to voters nor to Parliament but to the president. And Chirac has stood by his prime minister.

Some observers have suggested that this support is merely an endorsement by default; there are no obvious successors in the weakened administration, which has only one year to run. Others suggest that Chirac may be as dependent on Villepin as he is on the president.

Much attention has centered on remarks quoted in a current best-seller by Franz-Olivier Giesbert, editor in chief of the weekly Le Point, who wrote up 10 years' worth of unpublished notes in "The Tragedy of the President." He quotes Villepin as saying in the late 1990s, when he was general secretary of Chirac's presidential office, "The president can never fire me, never." Villepin added, according to Giesbert: "I know too much, outside of the system I would become a time bomb."

Indeed, most protagonists in the current scandal - known as the Clearstream affair after the Luxembourg-based clearing house through which the frigate kickbacks were allegedly channeled - are intimately linked.

In addition to Villepin, Chirac and Rondot, there is Imad Lahoud, a computer specialist at the aerospace consortium EADS, who took a leave from his job last Friday and is suspected of having written up the false list; and then there is Jean-Louis Gergorin, another senior executive at EADS, also on leave since last week to prepare his defense after allegations mounted that he was the anonymous informant who passed the list to judges after first presenting it to his old friend Villepin.

Rondot and Lahoud's fathers worked together in Lebanon under French colonial rule. Lahoud's father-in law, François Heilbronner, was deputy cabinet director when Chirac was prime minister in 1975 and 1986.

According to the French media, Gergorin was instrumental in getting Lahoud hired at EADS. More important, perhaps, Gergorin met Rondot and Villepin in the early 1980s, when all three worked at the Foreign Ministry.

In March 2003, Lahoud traveled to Metz to meet with Denis Robert, a journalist who had written two books about Clearstream and alleged money-laundering based on a number of lists of bank accounts he managed to obtain. After telling Robert that he was investigating on behalf of the secret service, Lahoud got to copy the lists, which according to Robert did not contain the names of any politicians.

Lahoud, who has served time in prison for fraud and forgery, is suspected of falsifying the Clearstream lists by adding the names of several politicians, according to press reports. With Gergorin's help, he was hired at EADS as scientific director shortly after obtaining the lists from Robert.

According to the Rondot notes in Le Monde, extracts from Rondot's testimony and a number of confiscated notes leaked to the newspaper Le Monde since April 28, it was Gergorin who pulled the list out of his pocket when the three men met in 2004 and Villepin asked the general to conduct an investigation.

In March that year, Gergorin met the judge investigating the frigate kickbacks, Renaud Van Ruymbeke, in secret and told him about the list before it arrived anonymously in Ruymbeke's mail box in May.

It was not until December 2005 that Ruymbeke established that the list was a fake. By this time a second investigation was already running into claims by several industrialists on the list that this was a defamation campaign. Sarkozy joined that case as a plaintiff only in January of this year.

Several months on, the details of the case remain opaque - and hopes for a speedy conclusion have been dashed as Rondot, a key witness, announced Sunday that he would not testify again - because his words have been leaked so widely - unless he was given special witness status.

While Rondot's leaked testimony and notes appear to leave no doubt that Sarkozy was not only mentioned but explicitly targeted by Villepin's inquiry, the general has claimed that his words were quoted out of context and misinterpreted. In his latest comments, in the Sunday newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, Rondot said he believed that Gergorin and Lahoud were at the origin of the scandal, while Villepin had acted in good faith.

But Villepin himself has changed his story as events have unfolded. After categorically denying that Sarkozy's name came up at the January 2004 meeting, he later said Sarkozy was mentioned, though only in his capacity as interior minister.

Over the last few days, the government has sought to change the focus by opening another investigation - into who has been leaking sensitive material to Le Monde and other newspapers.