- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 16, 2006

PARIS — Battered by urban riots in the fall and student protests this spring, France’s center-right government now finds itself caught in a scandal that threatens to cloud President Jacques Chirac’s waning days in office and sink his prime minister and hoped-for heir apparent.

The conservative-dominated National Assembly yesterday easily defeated a censure motion against Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, but doubts linger over his involvement in a scheme of bogus kickback charges that targeted his own interior minister.

Dubbed “Clearstream” after a Luxembourg clearinghouse where the kickbacks reportedly were deposited, the tale has all the ingredients of a French thriller: political back stabbing and intrigue, a high-stakes international defense deal, and even a French “Deep Throat” — Gen. Philippe Rondot — whose leaked declarations and notes are feeding a press frenzy.

In 2004, Gen. Rondot was ordered by Mr. de Villepin to look into reports that several politicians took kickbacks for the 1991 sale of French frigates to Taiwan. Found in lists and a CD-ROM sent to a judge, the suspicions targeting Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, among others, quickly proved unfounded.

But doubts remain that even after the case collapsed, Mr. Chirac and Mr. de Villepin pressed for the inquiry on Mr. Sarkozy, head of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement party and the prime minister’s main rival for the conservative presidential nomination in 2007.

Both leaders have staunchly denied the accusations. Gen. Rondot has accused the French press of twisting excerpts of notes of his meetings with Mr. de Villepin and his sworn testimony to investigators.

Mr. de Villepin yesterday denounced the no-confidence measure offered by the Socialist opposition as based on “rumor” and “calumny.”

France “is waiting to be defended, and that we serve it, that’s my sole and unique fight,” Mr. de Villepin declared during the noisy parliamentary debate before the vote.

Much of the country is baffled by the tangled and ever-widening Clearstream affair, which is being likened by some here to a Gallic Watergate.

However, one thing is clear: A year before the presidential elections, the scandal is exposing deep rifts within the ruling conservative party and feeding a sense of political decay in France.

“This affair gives the impression of a right that’s divided, that’s obsessed with its internal disputes rather than working for the country,” said Emmanuel Riviere, an analyst at the TNS-Sofres polling firm.

Although nearly half of those polled say Mr. de Villepin should not step down, a separate survey by the CSA polling agency found that the approval ratings for Mr. de Villepin and Mr. Chirac have tumbled to record lows, at 23 percent and 26 percent, respectively.

Once considered a likely candidate for the presidency, France’s aristocratic, 52-year-old prime minister has reeled from crisis to crisis since Mr. Chirac selected him a year ago.

First came three weeks of rioting by ethnic immigrant youths in the fall, which sparked soul-searching about the country’s failed integration policy. Then came nationwide demonstrations that forced Mr. de Villepin to withdraw a bill he personally pushed through parliament to ease job protections for younger workers. And now, Clearstream.

The scandal also has cast a shadow on 73-year-old Mr. Chirac, widely seen as a lame-duck president who is dogged by a series of decades-old scandals.

“It’s hard to say where this scandal will go and what kind of fallout it will have for the right,” said Mariette Sineau, a political analyst at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. “At the end, the entire political class may pay for this affair. Even the left, because people are beginning to say the left did the same things during its own time in power.”

“The only people who might profit from this is the extreme right,” she added, “which claims everything is rotten except for them.”

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