Chirac and Jospin at war over video scandal

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The French "sleaze, lies and videotape" scandal spiralled out of control yesterday, threatening to plunge the two parts of the power-sharing government in Paris into unstoppable, political warfare.

The French "sleaze, lies and videotape" scandal spiralled out of control yesterday, threatening to plunge the two parts of the power-sharing government in Paris into unstoppable, political warfare.

President Jacques Chirac and the Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, accused each other -either directly or through close allies - of seeking cynical advantage from the bizarre and tangled revelations of the past five days. Each side warned that worse was still to come.

France presides over a critical negotiation on the future of the European Union in the next three months. The two principal figures in its uneasy left-right, co-habiting government are playing a game of pass-the-grenade, which could seriously damage or destroy both of them.

The initial scandal - a posthumous videotape accusing the Gaullist (centre-right) Mr Chirac of organising a multi-million-pound party financing fraud - has rebounded, to the glee of the Right, against the Socialist Prime Minister.

The original copy of the video recording, containing the sweeping accusations of Jean-Claude Méry, a now-deceased Gaullist fixer and illegal financier, had been held for two years by Mr Jospin's Socialist friend, the former minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The tape was allegedly "sold" to Mr Strauss-Kahn, while he was Finance Minister, by a tax lawyer in return for going easy on his client, the fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld. Both Mr Strauss-Kahn and Mr Lagerfeld denied yesterday that any such deal was made.

The (undisputed) fact that a Socialist minister had a copy of the tape has, nevertheless, enabled Mr Chirac and his supporters to suggest the whole affair is a "manipulation", maybe even a fabrication, by Mr Jospin and the Left.

Yesterday, however, the Left struck back, pointing out that the heart of the scandal remained the "very serious", unexplained accusations against Mr Chirac, recorded by one of his own associates in the Gaullist RPR. The head of the Socialist group in the national assembly, Jean-Marc Ayrault, accused the President of being a "demagogic populist" who had "dragged down" French politics and would be facing legal action if he was not covered by presidential immunity. Such direct accusations ag-ainst a serving President by a mainstream, opposition politician are almost unheard of in France.

The newspaper Le Monde - which started the affair by publishing a transcript of the videotape last week - commented: "This war is only just starting. It will be long and pitiless."

A source close to Mr Jospin said the Prime Minister had been infuriated by the Right's attempts to smear him with mud that should, more properly, stick to Mr Chirac. "They let the dogs off the lead. Now we are going to fight," he said.

The affair took another dangerous turn for Mr Chirac yesterday. Investigating magistrates have seized two letters, addressed to the President, written by Méry in 1995 and 1996, at about the same time he recorded the videotape at the heart of the scandal. In the letters, Méry complains that Mr Chirac and the RPR had failed to honour a promise to pay him off generously if he kept his mouth shut while in jail under questioning for his part in illegal fund-raising for the party.

The letters confirm one part of the contents of the videotape, undermining the accusations by the Right that it was tampered with by the Left. Even more seriously, the letters suggest Mr Chirac was part of a conspiracy, as recently as 1995-96, to block the judicial investigation into his party's funding.

Mr Strauss-Kahn's role in the affair remains equally murky, however. He said the tape was given to him by a lawyer friend in 1998, two years after it was made, but he had not leaked or even watched it.

But what seems likely is that the former finance minister was, at the very least, hoarding the tape in the hope of making political use of it at some stage, and could therefore also face charges of impeding the course of justice.