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Former French PM formally named in smear scandal

French judges placed former prime minister Dominique de Villepin under formal investigation on Friday for his role in an alleged plot to smear Nicolas Sarkozy and damage his chances of winning the presidency.

world Updated: Jul 27, 2007 22:11 IST

French judges placed former prime minister Dominique de Villepin under formal investigation on Friday for his role in an alleged plot to smear Nicolas Sarkozy and damage his chances of winning the presidency.

Villepin on Friday went to the offices of judges Jean-Marie d'Huy and Henri Pons, who told him they were putting him under investigation, a step that could lead to a trial.

A judicial source said Villepin had appealed against the judges' judicial supervision order. It bars him from meeting other protagonists in the case, including former President Jacques Chirac, and sets a 200,000 euros ($273,000) surety.

Villepin said he would cooperate fully but said he had no involvement in the scandal, in which Sarkozy's name appeared on a faked list of accounts purportedly held at Luxembourg-based securities clearing house Clearstream.

The so-called "Clearstream affair" dominated politics for much of last year amid suspicions that Villepin had directed French spies to investigate the case with a view to discrediting Sarkozy, a rival for the presidency.

Villepin has always denied wrongdoing in the events, which occurred while he was foreign and later interior minister, saying he acted only as his responsibilities as minister demanded.

"I want to say this morning that at no time did I request an investigation into political personalities and at no time did I participate in a political manoeuvre of any kind," he said.

"I acted to respond to international threats, threats to our economic interests. It is strictly within that framework that I acted. It was my duty as minister," he told reporters.

He is expected to say that the investigation should not be handled by ordinary magistrates but that the case should come under the jurisdiction of the Cour de Justice de la Republique, a special tribunal that examines the actions of ministers.

STARK FALL

Villepin, a suave former diplomat and close ally of Chirac, has suffered a dramatic fall since Sarkozy's emergence as the leader of France's centre right and his triumph in the presidential election in May.

He enjoyed his greatest global prominence when he delivered France's condemnation of the U.S.-led campaign against Iraq in the United Nations in 2003 but his time as prime minister was marred by street riots and a failed labour market reform.

The case is not the first time that a French prime minister has been targeted in an investigation after leaving office.

But the Clearstream affair has been unusual in the stark light it has thrown on the bitter rivalries that dogged the twilight of Chirac's 12-year term as president.

The scandal emerged in 2004 when anonymous letters were sent to a magistrate alleging Sarkozy and other senior politicians held accounts linked to the sale of frigates to Taiwan in 1991.

The allegations proved to be spurious and the focus of investigations switched to the identity of those behind the denunciation, which was apparently aimed at damaging Sarkozy.

Villepin, who had already been questioned by judges in December, was called back after recent evidence from former intelligence official Philippe Rondot and Jean-Louis Gergorin, a former executive at aerospace group EADS who admitted to being the anonymous informant.