The French prime minister has undergone a 17-hour grilling by judges probing an alleged smear campaign. Dominique de Villepin arrived for the hearing at nine o’clock yesterday morning and did not emerge until three o’clock this morning. He has declared himself happy to help clear up a case in which he said he was a victim. Although he is unlikely to face charges, conflicting stories over a plot to discredit political rivals have left his reputation tarnished.
The affair involves bogus claims that a number of senior figures held secret accounts in the Luxembourg-based clearing house Clearstream. The money in them was said to be linked to a bribe- ridden sale of frigates to Taiwan, 15 years ago. Featuring in the list of names and accounts, since exposed as fake, was Dominique de Villepin’s government colleague and fierce rival within the political right Nicholas Sarkozy. De Villepin, who ordered investigations into the Clearstream case, denies it was an attempt to discredit his colleague, who is the Conservative’s frontrunner for next year’s presidential election.