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Scandal threatens to topple French Top II

Paris, May 14: When a squad of gendarmes raided the home of Gen Philippe Rondot, a former intelligence officer who worked closely with the French defence ministry, they can have had little idea what they would find.

Among the documents they removed from the man who is the central witness in the scandal being described as “France’s Watergate” was a diary, whose cryptic notes may prove to be the downfall of both the President and the Prime Minister of France.

Both deny having attempted to smear their political rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, now the interior minister, by ordering that he be among those investigated for allegedly receiving kickbacks from a 1991 deal to sell warships to Taiwan. They say they neither tried to target him, nor even mentioned his name.

Yet according to Rondot’s diaries ' the contents of which were leaked to the newspaper Le Monde at the end of last week ' Dominique de Villepin, now Prime Minister, warned the spymaster that if he and President Jacques Chirac were linked to investigations into Sarkozy, “Nous sautons (we’re done for)”.

The diaries suggest that Villepin ' the foreign minister at the time ' did ask for an inquiry into Sarkozy, on the instructions of the President. Sarkozy’s initials appear in notes of meetings with “D de V” (Dominique de Villepin) and there are references to the “PR” (President of the Republic). “Implicate NS”, reads one entry, another “Protect D de V and PR”.

In another note, Rondot showed growing concern over the repercussions if the affair became public. “I warn again-st the negative fallout this could have on the PR,” he wrote.

The intelligence officer eventually concluded that the allegations that Sarkozy received payments through secret accounts at the Clearstream bank in Luxembourg were false. But he wrote that Villepin was not convinced and insisted on further investigation. “D de V considers that despite the negative results (of checks) there is something, because the great and good are agitated and worried. N. Sarkozy'” he wrote.

According to French newspaper reports, even after being told that the claims against Sarkozy were bogus, Villepin demanded a second investigation by the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire ' the French equivalent of MI5 ' which also reported that there was no basis for the accusations. Villepin is also accused of omitting to reveal that the inquiries had cleared Sarkozy of any wrongdoing.

After Le Monde published the notes, a spokesman for Villepin said he “vigorously denounced” the printing of “truncated comments, confusions and interpretations”. Chirac’s office also rejected claims that he had any role in the inquiry.

But their publication has added to the political crisis that has all but paralysed France’s government, with another year still to run before presidential elections in which Villepin and Sarkozy are likely to be rival candidates of the Right.

The result is a lame-duck President, a discredited and unpopular Prime Minister grimly attempting to cling to office, and a political rival waiting in the wings for his opportunity to run the country ' a situation which, commentators have said, has parallels with Britain.

Lib'ration newspaper said Chirac’s 10-year reign was coming to a “polluted” end that was becoming “a little more pestilential by the day”.

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