French prime minister doesn’t resign

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said Tuesday that he will not resign despite a growing political scandal. He denied any role in the affair, the latest in a series of major problems that have mired down his conservative government, from riots in poor suburbs last fall to street protests by students this spring.

Now, Villepin is accused of having asked an intelligence agent in 2004 to secretly investigate Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy Villepin's political rival for allegedly receiving kickbacks from the US$2.8 billion sale of French frigates to Taiwan in 1991. Leading figures in the opposition have called on Villepin to resign, and asked President Jacques Chirac to take action. The French media, too, has insisted that the question of a resignation must now be asked.

"Nothing justifies a departure today," Villepin told Europe-1 radio, noting the timing of the scandal a year before presidential elections in which Sarkozy hopes to be the governing party's candidate. "We've lived for decades with the same scenario." In denying a role in the so-called Clearstream affair, Villepin pointed to an interview published Tuesday in the daily Le Figaro as "proof."

Gen. Philippe Rondot denied in the Le Figaro interview Tuesday having been charged by Villepin to investigate Sarkozy. This contradicts information published last week by the daily Le Monde, alleging that Rondot had specifically been asked by Villepin to investigate Sarkozy and other political figures in the case.

"I have never asked for an investigation on any political personality from the right or left," Villepin said. "I am accused on the basis of truncated statements," he added, referring to the Le Monde article. "They have just been denied." Rondot said that Sarkozy's name was mentioned during a Jan. 9, 2004 , meeting with Villepin who was at the time France 's foreign minister, but that he had not been asked to investigate.

Villepin denied that Sarkozy's name was even mentioned but said he had sought an investigation due to a "threat" linked to money laundering, a means used by terrorists. The scandal began simmering in 2004, when Judge Renaud Van Ruymbeke received a CD-ROM accusing Sarkozy and other ministers of holding secret accounts with Luxembourg bank Clearstream.

After a year of investigation, the judge decided the list was a fake. But that did not put a stop to the allegations. The prime minister has acknowledged ordering a probe in early 2004 limited to the Defense Ministry's role in alleged bribe-taking in the frigates deal.

Investigators are now trying to determine who is behind the affair. They conducted searches last month at the Defense Ministry, including in the office of Defense Minister Michel Alliot-Marie.

Villepin referred to claims that he personally ordered an investigation of Sarkozy as "calumny" targeting not just him but "all of France ." Villepin has long been considered President Jacques Chirac's choice to be candidate of his party, the Union for a Popular Movement, UMP. However, the series of crises, and Villepin's plunging poll ratings, have largely silenced speculation that he could be a candidate.

Several people alleged to have had Luxembourg accounts, including Sarkozy, have filed legal complaints. Villepin said that judicial officials must fully investigate the case, saying he would accept being questioned himself. "I am prepared to respond to all questions that could be asked of me," Villepin said, reports the AP.

N.U.