If you haven’t beenfollowing the Clearstream scandal in France, you’re in for agood guffaw.
Chirac and his chief Musketeer, Prime Minister Dominique Galouzeau deVillepin, have been caught in the act of some old-fashioned politicalskullduggery. And this time, it looks like someone has barred thedoors.
Remember: this is the French president who could face an indictmenton corruption charges the minute he leaves the Elysee palace,stemming from his days as Mayor of Paris. (Chirac allegedly kept asafe full of cash inside his office toilet, said to be kickbacks frommunicipal contractors, as I reported in TheFrench Betrayal of America).
Because of that judicial sword of Damocles, Chirac long made hisrivals believe he would run for a third term next year, hoping,perhaps, to die in office rather than go to jail.
Under a deal he cut with the then-head of the French constitutionalcourt, the socialist Roland Dumas, the court agreed not to allowprosecution against a sitting president, even for crimes committedbefore he took office. In exchange, Chirac would have the JusticeMinistry drop an investigation of Dumas for taking bribes in theTaiwan frigates scandal (more on that, below).
There’s an old cliché in France. Political scandals inthe United States are all about sex, whereas in France they are allabout money.
In America, the French note, it’s scandalous for a politicianto have sex with anyone other than his/her lawfully-wedded spouse;whereas in France, it’s considered scandalous for a man who hasclimbed to the pinnacles of power not to also climb into bed with hismistress. (The French become a bit more prudish when the cuckhold isthe man, but let’s leave that for another day).
Thus, the French never got the Monica Lewinsky affair, which theythought was all about sex, since that’s what the liberal mediatold them. And they found it quite normal that President FrancoisMitterrand had an illegitimate daughter named Mazarine, whom helodged in a luxury apartment near the Elysee Palace at taxpayerexpense.
But money& now that’s truly scandalous to the French.First, it’s scandalous to make it. But it’s even morescandalous to be caught hiding it – which, of course, in acountry with a confiscatory tax system, everyone who has it,does.
Which brings us to Clearstream, a name the French have madesynonymous with political corruption, bribery, kickbacks, andinternational intrigue.
On January 9, 2004, Dominique Galouzeau de Villepin, Chirac’sprotégé and would-be political heir, called the head ofthe French foreign intelligence service, the DGSE, to his office. Atthe time, Villepin was still foreign minister.
Villepin wanted General Philippe Rondot to investigate reports thatFrench politicians and defense contractors had “secret accounts”logged on a data base held by Luxembourg’s Clearstream Bank, aclearing house for international currency transactions.
The politicians and the companies were suspected of hiding some $500million in kickbacks from the $2.3 billion sale of six frigates byThomson-CSF (now Thales) to Taiwan in the early 1990s.
So far so good. Of course the foreign minister would want to knowabout secret overseas accounts on a major French arms deal. Afterall, his illustrious predecessor, Roland Dumas, allegedly hadbenefited from them.
But then last month, a French judge searched the home office ofGeneral Rondot, who is now retired, and found his contemporaneousnotes of that meeting with Villepin. The main topic, Rondot noted,was Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, arch-political rival ofVillepin, rising political star, and the man Chirac suspected of theutter disloyalty of wanting to replace him as president in the nextelection.
“Political stakes: N. Sarkozy,” Rondot wrote. “Obsessionwith N. Sarkozy (re: conflict J. Chirac/N. Sarkozy).”
When the judge interrogated him, Rondot made all of this very clear,according to a transcript of his deposition that was leaked to theFrench daily, Le Monde. It was Chirac himself who was behindwhat had all the appearances of a political smear, he said. It wasChirac who gave the orders to investigate Sarkozy, ordering Rondotthrough Villepin not to tell the domestic intelligence service, DST –since it was controlled by Sarkozy’s Interior Ministry.
Also present at the meeting in Villepin’s office on Jan. 9,2004 was Jean-Louis Gergorin, a long-standing confidant of the Frenchprime minister. He brought out of his coat pocket a listing ofClearstream account holdings that made Rondot’s eyes pop, or sohe claims.
He told the judge he was “surprised at the presence ofpoliticians from the left and the right” on the list. One ofthose on the Clearstream list was Nicolas Sarkozy.
In April 2004, Gergorin requested a private meeting with the judgeinvestigating the Taiwan frigates scandal. He said he was afraid forhis life, because others involved in the scandal had already died,but he had critical information to provide the judge.
Days later – ta-da! – an unsigned letter of denunciationarrives in the judge’s chambers, along with a CD-ROM containingthe same listing of Clearstream accounts Gergorin had shown Villepinand Rondot four months earlier.
The only problem was, the listing was fake. It was a plant, aimed atsmearing Sarkozy.
The French media has had a field day with the story in recent weeks,printing the entire 9,000 word transcript of Rondot’sdeposition before the judge, the text of his original note, Villepin’sdenials that he would never, ever try to smear his political rival,and more.
Chirac and Villepin then took to smearing Rondot, accusing him ofleaking the subject of a confidential judicial investigation (aFrench magistrate’s investigation is similar to a U.S. grandjury). They even sought an injunction against newspapers that printeda dozen stories relating to Rondot’s deposition.
So Rondot did what any self-respecting former French spy would do: hedipped into his bag of tricks and brought out a little gem he hadsaved up for a rainy day. President Jacques Chirac controlled asecret bank account with the Tokyo branch of the Sawa Bank of Japanwith a balance of roughly $50 million, Rondot claimed.(Thanksto my colleague Martin Walker at UPI for pointing thatout).
Could Jacques Chirac possibly have received payments through cut-outsas part of the UN’s corrupt Oil-for-Food scheme? Mum’sthe word from General Rondot, but stay tuned.
(If you want to follow the daily dish from Paris in English, visitblogger FaustaWertz. Her accounts areamusing and accurate, although her link to the full text of Rondot’sdeposition, published by Le Monde, has gone dead.)
This is one for the ages. Jacques Chirac is going down, and Dominiquede Villepin is going with him.
As the center-left daily Liberation commented in a leadeditorial two weeks ago, France “no longer has a government, ithas a raft. A raft that has been floating for weeks toward darkshores where discredit reigns.” (Sorry for the mixed metaphor,but this is French journalism). “And that drags with it a wholecountry, mocked abroad, staggering under the moral decomposition ofan executive that, in response, has hinted at the worst skullduggery.”
In the end, Sarkozy will come up smelling like roses. But that doesn’tmean he will win next year’s elections.
Watch out for the return of neo-fascist Jean-Marie LePen. Whencorruption strikes, his popularity soars.
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