Scandal over faked list of secret bank accounts rattles France's upper echelons

One summer day, a CD-ROM landed on the desk of an influential French judge, revealing a list of secret bank accounts supposedly belonging to top French politicians. Among them: presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy.

After a year of investigation, the judge decided the list was in fact a fake.

Livid, Sarkozy demanded a new probe to punish the mysterious informer, convinced the affair was devised to sully his reputation ahead of 2007 presidential elections. And he accused his chief rival, now-Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, of knowing much earlier and perhaps all along that it was all a hoax.

The tentacles of this scandal have reached far beyond the two men, implicating the Defense Ministry, the parent company of Airbus and top French executives. Whether it's a tale of corruption or deception, it has shaken the confidence of France's upper echelons.

On Thursday, Villepin released a statement expressing hope that investigators shed light on the accusations and clear "people who were unjustly named and who feel legitimately wounded."

A few minutes later, he and Sarkozy, who is the Interior Minister, had lunch together, and Villepin sought to soothe tensions over the affair.

Sarkozy said later on national television that he had "suffered personally" from the affair, and "would have liked to have known" earlier that his name was clear.

Judge Van Ruymbeke received the CD-ROM and letters in 2004 accusing Sarkozy, leading Socialist Dominique Strauss-Kahn, center-left Jean-Pierre Chevenement and center-right Alain Madelin of holding secret and illegal accounts with Luxembourg bank Clearstream.

The accounts were said to be used for kickbacks they received from the US$2.8 billion sale of French frigates to Taiwan in 1991, which Ruymbeke was investigating at the time.

Ruymbeke determined in 2005 that the accounts were legitimate but that they didn't belong to the politicians named. Sarkozy filed suit, and the hunt for the informer began, reports AP.


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