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Villepin attacks smear inquiry 'trick'

By John Lichfield in Paris

The former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin has attempted to turn the tables in the Clearstream "smear" scandal by claiming that the investigation was "manipulated" to fit the paranoid delusions of the future president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

The real key to the scandal, he said, was that "a politician" tried to "take the law into his own hands" because he wrongly feared his colleagues were "out to damage him". M. Villepin, who was Prime Minister until May, was formally accused last month of "complicity in forgery and false accusations" against his former colleague and rival, now President.

He faces a further round of questioning by investigative magistrates next week on his role in the appearance of forged bank documents in 2003-04. The documents implied that M. Sarkozy, among other public figures, held illegal offshore accounts, managed by the Clearsteam International bank in Luxembourg.

M. Villepin's comments yesterday were part of an intensive media campaign to present himself as the true victim of the scandal.

In a radio interview of barely coded scorn for his long-time political rival, M. Villepin suggested President Sarkozy should re-read Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, a 17th-century play by Molière. The central character is an ignorant upstart flattered by his friends into believing that he is an aristocrat.

In the same interview, M. Villepin said: "Nicholas Sarkozy was not the victim of a political plot in the Clearstream affair". The investigation had, he said, been "reconstructed" to give that impression. "I want to know by what conjuring trick, by what manipulation, this idea of an attack on Nicolas Sarkozy took root."

This "conjuring trick" was the key to the whole Clearstream affair, the former prime minister said. It could explain how "a politician could be so overcome by fear as to imagine that people were out to damage him – to the point where he wanted to take the law into his own hands." But M. Villepin did not quite say that M. Sarkozy had manipulated the smear investigation himself.

The investigating magistrates believe that there is a prima facie case that M. Villepin – with President Chirac's knowledge – attempted to use the bank documents knowing that they were false.

* Claude Chirac, daughter of the former French president, is being investigated as part of an alleged network of illegal, fake jobs at Paris town hall in the early 1990s, judicial sources said yesterday. Ms Chirac is alleged to have worked for her father, who was Mayor of Paris at the time, but had her salary paid by a small private company.

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