French PM questioned in scandal case

French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said on Friday he had been the victim of “calumny and lies”, as he emerged from 17 hours of questioning by magistrates over an apparent smear campaign against a political rival.

Villepin was heard as a witness, not a suspect, in the so-called Clearstream affair, which revolves around faked bank accounts and hushed-up government probes. But commentators said the prime minister’s image had suffered.

The marathon session, interrupted only by lunch and a break in which media said Villepin did some push-ups, ended at 3am (local time) on Friday. The prime minister told reporters: “As far as I was concerned, I was very happy to be able to provide my testimony in this affair where for many months I have been the victim of calumny and lies.

“Throughout this marathon hearing, which lasted 17 hours, I have been keen to answer all the questions as precisely as possible, anxious that the truth should emerge,” he said.

It is only the second time in modern France that a judge has questioned a prime minister as a witness.
Socialist Lionel Jospin was heard over a party financing affair in 2001.

Villepin’s critics say he sought to benefit from the scandal at the expense of Nicolas Sarkozy, his long-standing rival within the political right and a presidential front-runner. The prime minister denies the accusation.

The Clearstream affair began when anonymous letters were sent to an examining magistrate in 2004 alleging that Sarkozy and a list of senior left- and right-wing politicians held accounts in Clearstream, a Luxembourg-based clearing house.

Bogus

The money in them was said to be linked to the bribe-ridden 1991 sale of frigates to Taiwan, but the accounts proved bogus. Investigations continued, however, leading to complaints by Sarkozy of an elaborate attempt to discredit him.

Before becoming prime minister last year, Villepin ordered at least two separate investigations into the Clearstream case without communicating the findings to the prime minister at the time or a judge separately investigating the affair.

Villepin has told reporters he was duty-bound to act when the allegations were brought to his attention during his time as foreign and then interior minister.

The scandal has heated up ahead of next year’s presidential election, in which Sarkozy is seen as the right’s clear favourite to face Socialist Party candidate Segolene Royal.

Villepin has not ruled out a bid but has repeatedly said he harbours no “presidential ambitions”.

Commentators said the case had hurt his image, noting his questioning on Thursday coincided with a widely broadcast party debate in Bordeaux, in which Sarkozy scored points.—Reuters

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