John Lichfield: An explosive end to the Chirac era

Enormous damage is being inflicted on France and French democracy
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The Independent Online

There is a new satirical revue on the Paris stage called Villepy et Sarkozin. The fratricidal numbers one and two in the French government are presented as circus clowns. The tall, handsome, patrician prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, is the kind of glittering, well-spoken clown who wears a pointed hat. He sneakily and constantly trips up his enthusiastic and diminutive, tragi-comic colleague and presidential rival, Nicolas Sarkozy. The revue is on at the Théatre des deux ânes - the theatre of the two asses. Nothing in it could be as subversive or far-fetched as the other tragi-comic show - the real one - playing in French ministerial and judicial offices and on French TV screens: the Clearstream Affair.

This name, or misnomer, comes from the Luxembourg bank which is, innocently, at the centre of a convoluted political scandal. For "clear stream" read murky effluent. Few things in the Clearstream Affair are clear, except that someone tried to smear Sarkozy as financially corrupt. M. Sarkozy, 51, had achieved the remarkable feat of spending 30 years in French politics without a whisper of financial scandal. Until two years ago.

In April and May 2004, an anonymous informant, or "corbeau"(crow) in French police slang, sent a letter and then a CD-Rom to an investigating judge. The disc listed M. Sarkozy among 89 political and business figures who held undeclared accounts at off-shore banks around the world handled in Luxembourg by Clearstream International. It later became clear that the information was an elaborate forgery. At least part of the intention seems to have been to smear senior figures in EADS, the company which makes the European Airbus, to influence the outcome of a boardroom leadership struggle.

Was M. Sarkozy's name (or actually his middle names "Paul", "Nagy" and "Bocsa") thrown in haphazardly (as were many others, including that of the Russian billionaire, Roman Abramovich)? Or was there also a deliberate attempt to destroy M Sarkozy's ambition to replace President Jacques Chirac as the leading figure on the French centre-right and a presidential candidate in 2007?

M. Sarkozy's supporters have suspected for months that M. Chirac, and his long-time protégé, M. Villepin, tried to use the Clearstream affair to ruin M. Sarkozy by leaking the allegations to the press. In recent days, it has been alleged that M. Villepin's involvement in the anti-Sarkozy smear may have been more direct than that. There has been talk of a "French Watergate" (although the original Watergate was at least a manipulation against the political opposition, not a rival from the same political "family"). There have been strident calls from the main centre-left opposition for M. Villepin's resignation.

In bravura performances on radio and in the national assembly on Tuesday, M. Villepin rejected the allegations against him as a "tissue of calumnies and ignoble lies".

What on earth is going on?

As a result of a complaint by one of the traduced business figures, two judges have been conducting a criminal investigation into the libellous letter and CD-Rom. Five weeks ago, they discovered that Dominique de Villepin, then the foreign minister, had called a meeting in January 2004 to discuss the alleged, undeclared bank accounts at Clearstream. M. Villepin asked a senior intelligence figure, General Philippe Rondot - the man who captured Carlos the Jackal in 1994 - to investigate. The meeting took place three months before the "corbeau" or poison-pen writer sent in his false information.

In a statement to the investigating judges, leaked to Le Monde last week, M. Rondot said that M. Villepin, on M. Chirac's orders, had asked him to check out whether M. Sarkozy held accounts at Clearstream. The general has since partially repudiated the leaked version of his sworn statement.

M. Villepin says that he called in the general because he feared an "international mafia" or "terrorist money" using accounts at Clearstream posed a threat to "national security". At no point, he says, did he mention M. Sarkozy. A fuller account of General Rondot's leaked evidence - published in Le Monde yesterday - contradicts M. Villepin's version. According to the same note, M. Villepin did mention M. Sarkozy's name in January 2004.

Several other questions remain. M. Villepin has failed to explain why he, as foreign minister, asked for such an unofficial inquiry without informing the judicial authorities or his prime minister. He has failed satisfactorily to explain the presence at the January 2004 meeting of an Airbus executive, and personal friend, Jean-Louis Gergorin.

An investigation by one of the French internal security services eventually matched the account numbers in the "poison-pen" CD to a list of genuine Clearstream-handled accounts obtained by a journalist, Denis Robert, in 2001. M. Robert says that, in early 2003, he gave this list of numbers, with no names, to a computer-expert. The expert, Imad Lahoud, was later hired to work at Airbus - by M. Villepin's friend, M. Gergorin. Both M. Gergorin and M. Lahoud have categorically denied, in lawyers' statements, tampering with the Clearstream list or sending the anonymous letter or CD. Phew.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the affair, enormous damage is being inflicted on France and French democracy. The fact that so many people, even people on the centre-right, are prepared to believe that M. Sarkozy was the victim of a plot within his own political "family" tells its own story.

This is not the first time the forces of "Chiraquie" - ie the Chirac clan - have been suspected of a manipulation of this kind. President Chirac is known to despise M. Sarkozy. M. Villepin is said to detest him, referring to him in private as "le nain", the dwarf. In the space of a year, France has been shaken by the popular rejection of the European Union constitution; by three weeks of suburban riots and by the successful university, school and street protests against a new employment law for the young. And now by "Clearstream".

All four crises can be attributed, in whole or in part, to the vacuity of 11 years of Chirac rule: a comeuppance for a lifetime of seeking power for its own sake, with no moral or strategic vision of France's domestic or European future. Centre-right deputies, returning from their constituencies, last weekend, were in despair. The moderate right-wing electorate of La France Profonde can barely follow the machinations of Clearstream but they are - finally - disgusted by the self-obsession of their leaders. They are threatening to defect en masse next year to the far right or the centre left.

If Clearstream was, to some degree, a plot against the presidential ambitions of Nicolas Sarkozy, it might yet succeed. Legally Clearstream may go nowhere. Politically, it threatens to blow up the entire divided house of the centre right, destroying innocent and guilty alike. What a stupendous firework display to mark the end of the Chirac era.