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The Clearstream Affair

Dominique de Villepin, the former French prime minister, had some unusual visitors this week. Judges and police searched his Parisian apartment as part of their investigation into what is proving to be the biggest of the many political scandals of the Chirac era: the Clearstream affair.

According to Charles Bremner, writing today in the London Times, the investigating magistrates are close to bringing criminal charges against de Villepin. He is accused of conspiring with former President Jacques Chirac to smear Nicolas Sarkozy (then minister of the interior), thereby dashing the latter’s presidential hopes and clearing the way for de Villepin to succeed his patron, Jacques Chirac. Evidence has come to light of forged bank records purporting to prove that Sarkozy had accepted bribes in order to facilitate the sale of warships to Taiwan.

The trail leads back via the computer files of a senior intelligence officer, General Philippe Rondot, to two conversations in May 2004 between de Villepin and a defense contractor, Jean-Louis Gregorin, who has already been charged with conspiracy. Apparently Gregorin told the general that he had “received instructions from Dominique de Villepin.” On another occasion, de Villepin “was apparently jubilant but also concerned not to have his name appear in the affair.” These notes look very much like the smoking gun that police were looking for.

They may yet catch an even bigger fish. Two weeks ago Chirac rejected a judicial summons to be interrogated about the Clearstream affair, on the grounds that he enjoys presidential immunity. But that defense may not be enough to protect him if it becomes clear that he, too, knew of and approved the plot to destroy Sarkozy’s reputation. There is no recent example of a French head of state being involved in such a serious criminal conspiracy—we have to go back to Marshal Pétain.

The leader of the Vichy regime was tried and convicted for his collaboration with the Nazis, though his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by his successor, Charles de Gaulle. It is a piquant thought that President Sarkozy, the intended victim of the Clearstream affair, might one day find himself in a similar position of having to decide whether to show mercy toward his disgraced predecessor and rival. “Sarko” is unlikely to do anything to impede the inquiry, though: he simply needs to let justice take its course.

Besides the justice dispensed by the courts, there is also poetic justice in this belated comeuppance. The Chirac-Villepin duo did more damage to France’s standing in the world than even François Mitterrand and Valery Giscard d’Estaing, by offering political and financial aid to dictators and terrorists. So it is only right that the wheels of justice (having ground exceedingly slowly while they were in power) should now have overtaken them: it looks very much as if the nemesis of Chirac and de Villepin, who did so much to undermine the rule of law, will take a legal form. They truly have been hoist by their own petard.


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