Bogus corruption inquiry engulfs French government

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The Independent Online

French judges have raided the offices of the Defence Minister and intelligence services in recent days and are expected to demand access to the files of the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, as part of an inquiry into false allegations of corruption.

The affair has poisoned the already hostile relationship between M. Villepin and his number two, the Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy. M. Villepin was damaged last week by his retreat on an unpopular youth employment law. He now faces renewed allegations that he tried to damage M. Sarkozy's political career two years ago by seizing on bogus accusations of corruption.

The so-called "Clearstream affair" reads like the plot of a political thriller. Two investigating judges have recently fallen out with their superiors after raiding the offices of the Defence Minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, several senior intelligence figures and those of the French equivalent of MI6, the Direction Généralede la Sécurité Exteriéure. The affair has ramifications at the most senior levels of French politics and in the struggle for control of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), which makes the European Airbus.

Two years ago another investigating judge received an anonymous letter and a CD-rom listing bank accounts in Luxembourg. Among the senior business and political figures named in the letter and the disk was M. Sarkozy, who was Finance Minister at the time, the favourite to succeed President Jacques Chirac as the centre-right candidate in the presidential election next year. The business figures named included a senior executive at Airbus. The disk purported to show that the politicians and businessmen held secret accounts at a bank called Clearstream International.

A brief investigation by the judge revealed that these allegations were faked. Part of the motivation seems to have been to influence the struggle for leadership of EADS and to damage the chances of the eventual winner, Noel Forgeard.

M. Sarkozy demanded a judicial investigation. As part of this inquiry, two investigating judges, Henri Pons and Jean-Marie d'Huy, have been raiding offices and seizing diaries and documents at senior levels of the French government in the past week. There have also been similar raids on the offices of EADS. Reports in the French press say the two judges plan to make a similar visit to the Prime Minister's offices and residence at the Matignon Palace in the next few days.

In October 2004, M. Sarkozy accused M. Villepin of trying to use the Clearstream affair to damage his chances of running for President. A similar allegation is made in a best-selling book published last month, La Tragédie du Président by Franz-Olivier Giesbert. According to the book, when M. Villepin - then the Interior Minister - heard that M. Sarkozy had been named on the CD-Rom he telephoned Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who was Prime Minister, and said: "That's it. We've got him." M. Villepin ordered an investigation by the internal security agency, the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST). But the book says that the DST reported back that the allegations were made up and that the anonymous letter had been written by Jean-Louis Gergorin, a friend of M. Villepin.

The offices of M. Gergorin, a vice-president of EADS, who denies any connection with the affair, have also been raided.