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Intrigue in French smear scandal

Former Prime Minister De Villepin is named a suspect in a plot to discredit Sarkozy, now the country's president.

July 28, 2007|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — Investigating magistrates Friday accused one of France's most powerful men over the past decade, former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, of using intelligence operatives to try to smear President Nicolas Sarkozy when the two were aspiring presidential contenders.

After questioning De Villepin, the two judges formally named him a suspect in a case involving a fabricated list of political personalities said to have received kickbacks. De Villepin faces charges including complicity in slander and complicity in using false documents.

Investigators accuse the former premier of orchestrating a complex smear campaign in which private operatives attempted to link Sarkozy to a list of secret bank accounts they had allegedly fabricated. De Villepin then allegedly directed spy chiefs to conduct a secret investigation of the purported accounts.

In the French judicial system, being named a suspect amounts to the filing of preliminary charges.

De Villepin, 53, left the courthouse Friday morning and told reporters that he did nothing wrong during his tenure as foreign and interior minister, the posts he held when the offenses were allegedly committed.

"I repeat once again this morning that at no moment did I request an investigation of political personalities, that at no moment did I participate in a political maneuver," he said. "I acted against international threats, I acted to confront threats to our economic interests. It's strictly in that framework in which I acted. It was my duty as minister."

Nevertheless, the accusations were a blow to De Villepin, who ended his term as prime minister in May after more than a decade as the top protege, advisor and would-be heir of former President Jacques Chirac. Tall, silver-haired and smooth-talking, De Villepin drew worldwide attention in 2003 when he gave an impassioned speech at the United Nations opposing U.S. military action in Iraq. After that moment in the spotlight, he did his best to position himself for a presidential run.

He and Chirac waged a bitter war in the ruling center-right party to prevent Sarkozy from becoming its candidate in this year's presidential race. But Sarkozy, a veteran campaigner and skillful strategist, triumphed over De Villepin, who has never run for office and is resented by many in his own party as aloof and long-winded.

De Villepin reputedly has a taste for intrigue, according to published reports, and that may have landed him in trouble.

Le Parisien newspaper quoted an unidentified presidential advisor Friday as saying: "He wanted to play with fire; he got burned. He always had a passion for [Joseph] Fouche," Napoleon's feared chief of the secret police.

The scandal is a typical French labyrinth of intrigue, originating in a previous scandal: alleged multimillion-dollar kickbacks generated by the sale of French frigates to Taiwan in 1991.

Investigators already have accused Jean Louis Gergorin, a business executive and close associate of De Villepin, and Imad Lahoud, a computer expert who worked for Gergorin, of involvement in the creation of a fake list of secret accounts in Clearstream, a Luxembourg bank, and of providing that list to investigators in the kickback case.

According to government officials, public statements by witnesses and press accounts, De Villepin summoned Gergorin to the Foreign Ministry in January 2004, told him Chirac wanted a secret investigation of politicians and top officials on the list, and enlisted him as a secret operative to transmit information to investigators.

De Villepin seemed especially focused on information that could damage Sarkozy, according to reports about the testimony of Gergorin and Gen. Philippe Rondot, a veteran spymaster.

Chirac and De Villepin allegedly used Rondot and other top intelligence officials to pursue the secret inquiry.

Sarkozy was traveling in Africa and did not comment Friday. But the spokesman of his Union for a Popular Movement party, Yves Jego, said it was an "absolute necessity" to get to the bottom "of an attempted plot against Nicolas Sarkozy."

"The sooner we know, the sooner things will be clear, so those whose names have been cited can defend themselves," Jego told reporters. "I remind you that being named as a suspect is not a sign of guilt, but the possibility to have access to the file and be able to justify and explain oneself."

rotella@latimes.com

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