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Villepin vulnerable despite surviving censure motion

The embattled French Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, comfortably survived a "no confidence" motion in the National Assembly last night, but the blank spaces on the government benches suggested that his position remained vulnerable.

M. Villepin has been linked by a series of leaks from a criminal investigation to an attempt to smear his colleague and rival Nicolas Sarkozy. A censure motion tabled by the main opposition, the Socialist Party, failed to disturb the large centre-right majority in the lower house of parliament but attracted some support from a centrist party, the UDF, which usually votes with the government.

The Socialist Party's first secretary, François Hollande, accused M. Villepin of misusing the intelligence services when he was Foreign Minister in 2004 to conduct an unorthodox, secret investigation into allegations of corruption against M. Sarkozy.

The allegations proved to be bogus but, later the same year, M. Villepin, as Interior Minister, demanded a second investigation by another intelligence agency, M. Hollande said. The Socialist leader said it was clear that the motive for these investigations was the "poisonous hatreds" between leading figures in the administration. He called for the Prime Minister to stand down.

M. Villepin accused M. Hollande of dragging "calumny, lies and rumour" into the National Assembly. But the blank spaces on the right hand side of the parliament suggested that many deputies for the ruling UMP party had decided not to support M. Villepin in person. Nevertheless, the censure motion attracted only 190 votes - far short of the majority needed to overturn the government.