Villepin says he is a 'victim' after grilling by judges

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The Independent Online

The French Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, emerged unbowed in the early hours of yesterday from an unprecedented 17-hour grilling by judges investigating an attempt to smear his colleague, Nicolas Sarkozy.

No French prime minister in recent times has ever been subjected to such a lengthy questioning by judges investigating an alleged criminal offence. Although leaks from the inquiry have suggested that M. Villepin tried to take advantage of false allegations to damage his colleague and rival, the Prime Minister was interviewed as a witness, not as a potential defendant.

When he finally emerged from the marathon interrogation, he said that he was himself a "victim" of the so-called "Clearstream" scandal. "I was very happy to be able to give my evidence in this affair in which, for months, I have been the victim of calumnies and lies," M. Villepin said.

No details emerged immediately of the exchanges between the Prime Minister and the judges, which are covered by the supposed secrecy of all French judicial investigations. On past form, it is likely to be only a matter of days before details leak to the French press.

If dissatisfied with the Prime Minister's explanations, the two judges, Jean-Marie d'Huy and Henri Pons, could place him under formal investigation for "libellous denunciation".

There is no recent precedent for a criminal accusation against the head of the French government. The judges wouldtherefore need clearer evidence against M. Villepin than the largely circumstantial allegations which have appeared so far.

In May and June 2004, documents were sent anonymously to another judge which appeared to show that M. Sarkozy, and other political and business figures in France, had received illegal kick-backs in offshore accounts handled by a Luxembourg clearing bank called Clearstream International.

Investigations rapidly proved that genuine bank records had been faked to include false names.

Testimony to the two investigating judges, leaked to French newspapers earlier this year, suggested that M. Villepin, then foreign minister, had seen the same documents in January 2004, several months before they were sent to the judge.

He commissioned a secret investigation, which rapidly concluded that the documents were faked. M. Villepin nevertheless commissioned another investigation the following July, after he had moved to the interior ministry.

It has been established that the documents were first shown to M. Villepin, and then sent anonymously to the judge, by Jean-Louis Gergorin, a former senior official of Airbus and former colleague of M. Villepin. He says that he received and passed on the information in good faith.

At the same time as the allegations first appeared, M. Sarkozy was emerging as a strong candidate to succeed President Jacques Chirac and lead the French centre-right into the presidential elections next spring.

M. Sarkozy, the interior minister and number two in M. Villepin's government, has since become the overwhelming favourite to win the ruling party nomination next month. At what point, and why, M. Sarkozy's name was introduced to the documents remains a matter of argument and confusion.

M. Villepin says that there was no reference to his colleague when he first saw the documents. Other witnesses say that there was a coded, but clear reference to M. Sarkozy and that M. Villepin was aware of the reference.

Four people have been placed under formal investigation, including an accountant and a freelance journalist, both of whom say they were unaware of the later smear campaign.