May 17, 2006

Chirac tells govt to focus on policy

By Elizabeth Pineau

PARIS (Reuters) - French President Jacques Chirac ordered
ministers to champion the government's record in office on
Wednesday in a clear effort to deflect attention from a
damaging smear scandal that has engulfed his cabinet.

Chirac said successes on jobs and the economy had been
swamped by daily allegations of a plot to taint presidential
hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy with a graft probe.

The furor has paralyzed the conservative government, has
fed voter cynicism that commentators say could benefit
extremist parties and risks souring Chirac's last year in

"At a time when the results of our policies on jobs,
growth, security and the dynamism of our country are there, the
president firmly reminded each of his ministers of the need to
talk about these results and bring them into the public
debate," government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope told reporters
after a regular cabinet meeting.

In addition to denying any role in the Sarkozy smear plot,
Chirac has also been forced to defend himself against
persistent reports that he held a secret bank account in Japan,
claims repeated by Wednesday's satirical Le Canard Enchaine

His Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin is also on the
ropes, suspected of using French spies to try to smear his
rival Sarkozy, the interior minister, over a faked list of bank
accounts purportedly linked to arms kickbacks.

Villepin has denied any wrong-doing over the "Clearstream
affair," named after the Luxembourg bank where Sarkozy was
wrongly suspected of having secret accounts.

But he has failed to dispel suspicions of foul play and,
while few think he can now succeed his mentor Chirac as
president in elections next year, Villepin has refused to quit.

"During an ordeal, you stay at your post," he told the
Paris Match weekly in an interview to appear on Thursday.

"I think the French people would not have understood if,
out of pride or personal vanity, I decided to leave," he said.


The prime minister's supporters had hoped for some
breathing space after a censure motion on Tuesday brought by
the opposition Socialists was defeated as expected.

But around 200 deputies from the ruling UMP party boycotted
his speech, underlining their anger at his handling of recent
political crises and fuelling speculation about his future.

"One saw in concrete fashion that Dominique de Villepin was
completely isolated," veteran commentator Alain Duhamel said on
RTL radio. "Half the deputies from the UMP weren't there. I've
never seen that in a censure vote," he said.

Procedural rules mean only ballots for the censure motion
are counted and the opposition were always going to lack the
289 votes needed. But commentators seized upon the UMP

"How do you measure confidence in a prime minister?" asked
the Midi Libre newspaper. "By the empty spaces in the ranks of
the majority while the censure vote is being rejected? By the
deputies who plead important meetings to leave the Assembly?"