A forceful counter-attack – but will it be enough to restore his popularity and silence his critics?The French Prime Minister has ruled out resigning over accusations of a political smear campaign against his main rival in the ruling party, Nicolas Sarkozy. “How can one accept that the political debate in our country is being held hostage by some false accusations and manipulations,” said Dominique de Villepin. Opposition leader Francois Holland has been one of those keeping up the pressure in the so-called Clearstream affair, involving false claims of illicit funds. In an outburst in parliament, he said: “What authority does the state have? How could the state fall so far, because of you?” Villepin has denied secretly ordering an investigation into Sarkozy, a likely presidential contender next year. “It’s a very serious and weighty scandal,” said centrist deputy Francois Sauvadet. “It’s not only a crisis of the regime but also an institutional crisis. We need the truth in this affair.” Villepin, whose popularity has fallen after riots in poor suburbs and violent protest against a new youth employment contract, says he is willing to be questioned by investigators.