Reprinted from

France's Villepin Could Face Criminal Charges

Kenneth R. Timmerman
Friday, July 13, 2007

 PARIS -- Former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin could face prosecution for criminal slander and other charges for his role in the Clearstream scandal that erupted while he was a top aide to President Jacques Chirac.

 The complex political-intelligence-financial scandal bears all the hallmarks of a French film noir. But this is a thriller whose scenes are being played out to a cynical public in the French media.

 The former prime minister's legal troubles began in 2004, when an unknown informant provided a list of illegal offshore bank account holders to a French judge, that included the name of Villepin's chief political rival, Nicolas Sarkozy.

 It turned out that the list from the Belgian bank clearing house Clearstream had been fabricated, apparently in a crude attempt to destroy Sarkozy's political future. But instead of acquiescing to the slander, Sarkozy filed a civil complaint that set in motion the French courts.

 In an unprecedented move for France, investigative magistrates Jean-Marie d'Huy and Henri Pons searched former Prime Minister Villepin's Parisian residence on July 5, seizing classified memoranda, a laptop computer, computer disks, and other documents relating to the scandal, according to French media accounts on Thursday.

 Villepin was not present at his home when the judges and a team of police inspectors first arrived. Earlier in the day, he denied any wrongdoing.

 A long-time aide to Chirac, Villepin served for several years as chief of staff at the Elysee Palace before Chirac appointed him as foreign minister, interior minister, and ultimately as prime minister in 2004.

 In addition to seizing documents and the computer, the judges also demanded that Villepin surrender his cell phone and his wallet. The former prime minister said he didn't possess a wallet because a security guard handled all his needs.

 The judges then demanded to search his official car, which was parked in the courtyard downstairs, where they emptied out the overnight bag Villepin kept in the trunk.

 The following day, they searched the office he was allowed to maintain in an annex of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs complex on the Quai d'Orsay, seizing a USB drive, eight Post-It notes, and greeting cards sent to him by other suspects in the financial scandal. Three more computers were also impounded.

 After examining the documents seized from Villepin, the magistrates issued a subpoena demanding that the former primer minister appear in court on July 27 to answer four criminal charges.

 In France, investigative magistrates conduct the equivalent of grand jury investigations that subsequently can lead to criminal indictments handled by government prosecutors.

 At the same time they were searching Villepin's residence and office, the judges were hearing new testimony from the former French intelligence chief, Gen. Philippe Rondot, and his secretary, identified in public accounts only as "Stephane Q."

 Rondot has admitted to investigators that he shredded several classified memoranda concerning his investigation into the Clearstream lists after meeting with Villepin on July 19, 2004.

 Stephane Q. told investigators that she personally "erased all the sensitive files" after Rondot met with Villepin.

 But police computer analysts managed to retrieve the files from computer disks seized in Rondot's office, and learned from them the name of the "anonymous" source who delivered the falsified Clearstream account lists to the French judge in 2004.

 The source, former French defense industry executive Jean-Louis Gergorin, has admitted that he transmitted the fake bank account list that included Sarkozy's name to another investigative judge, apparently on orders from Villepin.

 In their account of these latest developments on Thursday, the Paris daily Le Monde noted that the judges "have not given up going after Jacques Chirac," since one of the classified notes destroyed by Rondot bore the heading, "Special Operation PR."

 The initials referred to "president de la Republique," a position then held by Chirac.

 Since leaving office in May, Chirac has taken an extended holiday as guest of the king of Morocco, and recently took up residence in a sumptuous Paris penthouse owned by the family of assassinated Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a lifelong friend.

 Chirac also faces criminal investigations on corruption charges stemming from his 18 years as mayor of Paris — charges that were put on hold while he was serving as president.

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