French Prime Minister Under Fire

Lisa Bryant

A campaign to blacken the reputation of France's Interior Minister has gotten his chief rival, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, into hot water. Mr. de Villepin denies any involvement in the scandal, even as calls are growing for his resignation.

At a press conference Thursday, Prime Minister de Villepin denied yet again he had anything to do with a dirty tricks campaign targeting Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

Mr. de Villepin said he had never ordered a corruption inquiry against Sarkozy. Sarkozy's name came up in discussions, the prime minister said, only in his current position as interior minister.

The inquiry is tied to a years-long, tangled scandal known in France simply as the Clearstream affair. Clearstream is the name of a financial clearinghouse based in Luxembourg, where kickbacks were alleged to have been channeled to Sarkozy and several other French politicians. A French investigative judge found those allegations were not true. But it remains a mystery just who authored the smear campaign against Sarkozy.

Last week, France's leading Le Monde newspaper reported on sworn testimony from a retired intelligence officer, who asserted that Mr. de Villepin ordered him to investigate corruption allegations against Sarkozy. The prime minister denies this. The officer in question subsequently said he was scandalized by Le Monde's report. But on Wednesday, the newspaper printed what appears to be the full transcript of the officer's testimony.

The scandal has prompted calls by the opposition Socialist Party for de Villepin to resign.

In remarks broadcast on French radio Thursday, Socialist Party spokesman, Julien Dray, called the Clearstream affair a scandal. Not only should the prime minister resign, he said, but so should his entire center-right government.

The affair has dealt a further blow to Mr. de Villepin, already weakened by recent demonstrations against an unpopular jobs law that sent hundreds of thousands of French to the streets. He was ultimately forced to repeal the legislation.

A new poll, to be published Friday in Le Figaro magazine, places Mr. de Villepin's approval rating at only 24 percent. But a separate survey published Thursday in Le Parisien newspaper, finds that 46 percent of French don't want Villepin to resign over Clearstream - compared to 33 percent who do.

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