New doubt cast on Villepin's denial of Sarkozy 'smear'

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The Independent Online

The French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin's attempt to distance himself from a growing "smear" scandal took a severe battering yesterday.

A sworn statement, given to two investigating judges, and leaked to the newspaper Le Monde, contradicted several of the declarations made by M. Villepin in a radio interview, and before the national assembly the day before.

The Prime Minister had categorically denied that, in 2004, he asked a senior intelligence officer to launch an unofficial, secret investigation into allegations that his colleague and rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, had undeclared offshore bank accounts. He said that he had asked for a general investigation on the grounds of "national security" - but knew nothing at the time of a list of bank accounts naming M. Sarkozy, and had not asked for an investigation of any particular individual.

M. Villepin complained that he was the victim of a "campaign of rumours and calumny" and said he was the victim of a political and media "lynching"and "incessant, mendacious and unjust" accusations.

However, Le Monde yesterday published extensive extracts from a sworn statement by the senior intelligence officer, General Philippe Rondot, made to two judges investigating the affair. It also published extracts from a note about the 2004 meeting with M. Villepin, written by General Rondot at the time and seized last month by the investigating judges.

General Rondot, now retired but one of the most respected figures in French intelligence, says that the list of bank accounts in Luxembourg referring to M. Sarkozy was discussed at the January 2004 meeting. In both his memo and his sworn testimony to the judges, he says that the names of politicians, including that of M. Sarkozy, came up at the meeting and that he was asked to investigate political "networks" which crossed normal party boundaries.

The list of accounts and names - sent anonymously to judicial authorities three months later and then leaked to the press - has since been proved to be a fabrication.