May 18, 2006

“Crow squawks” in French dirty tricks scandal

By Tom Heneghan

PARIS (Reuters) - A senior French arms industry executive
has admitted writing an anonymous letter at the heart of a
dirty tricks scandal shaking the government, but denied it was
to help Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin smear a rival.

Jean-Louis Gergorin said in an interview published on
Thursday that he alerted Villepin to a list of suspicious bank
accounts allegedly belonging to politicians and civil servants,
but it did not mention Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

Villepin's authority has been seriously damaged by charges
he tried to smear Sarkozy, a leading contender in next year's
presidential race, by prolonging a secret probe into what he
quickly found out was a faked list of suspected bribe-takers.

Gergorin's admission answered one of the many questions in
the saga, but he declined to say who produced other letters and
lists that targeted Sarkozy, who denies any wrongdoing.

Gergorin said he discussed the list with judge Renaud Van
Ruymbeke, who was investigating a bribe-ridden 1991 arms export
deal, but would not repeat this in a formal deposition. "That
led to the anonymous letter," he told the daily Le Parisien.

While confirming that he wrote the first anonymous letter
in May 2004, Gergorin denied being the "crow" -- French slang
for a writer of poison-pen letters -- that magistrates and
media have been hunting feverishly for weeks.

"A crow is an anonymous informer acting in bad faith," said
Gergorin, who stepped down from his post as vice president for
strategic coordination at the European aerospace and defense
company EADS in order to defend his name in the scandal.

"By going to see the investigating magistrate, I was not
anonymous," he said.

The scandal has dominated the Paris political scene so much
that President Jacques Chirac lectured his ministers at the
weekly cabinet meeting on Wednesday that they must work harder
at advertising government successes on jobs and the economy.

Villepin has denied any wrong-doing over the tangled
"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. While
few think he can now succeed his mentor Chirac as president in
elections next year, Villepin has refused to quit.

In evidence of his weakened position, more than half the
deputies in his party boycotted his speech during debate on a
censure motion brought on Tuesday by the left-wing opposition.