It never stops when your blog has to cover an entire continent. Hardly had the Italian left taken AFOE’s advice to get Giorgio Napolitano elected as president than the Clearstream scandal in France was getting out of hand, and nothing at all on the blog! Fortunately, at the moment the news from that quarter is coming so thick and at such a howling rate of speed that it wasn’t going to be hard to catch up. The latest despatches suggest that, firstly, it was De Villepin and Chirac, and secondly, that the victim-Nicolas Sarkozy-probably has something to hide too, as in any good film noir.
And that’s before you get on to the 300 million francs in the president’s secret Japanese bank account. Allegedly.
So what is a Clearstream and why is it a scandal? Clearstream is a bank clearing house in Luxembourg that permits banks to carry out international payments on a net basis, paying just the balance of their transactions in cash every business day. It has a bad reputation in France because of one Denis Robert, who has written three books alleging that it’s responsible for money laundering on a vast scale. But more relevantly, it’s also the supposed cause of a major political crisis.
Now, French political scandals have a style all their own. British ones are generally farcical, Italian ones more simple than they appear, but French ones unite truly astonishing viciousness with greed and a sort of postmodernist intricacy that allows the participants to believe anything they like. Clearstream has the curious feature that the original scandal is that the scandal doesn’t exist.
In the beginning, around 2003, the French external secret service, the DGSE, was making enquiries into possible terrorist financing with the advice of M. Robert and also of one Iman Lahoud, an IT expert with the huge Franco-German aerospace company EADS who just happens to be the nephew of the Lebanese president. Lahoud is always referred to as a computer expert, but I’ve yet to see any detail of what his expertise is meant to be. In charge was General Philippe Rondot, a spook hero responsible for the arrest of Carlos “the Jackal”.
In November, 2003, Dominique de Villepin, then foreign minister, called Rondot to his office and showed him a list of accounts at Clearstream, telling Rondot to look into claims that secret accounts existed there for the benefit of senior French politicians. De Villepin denies that he mentioned Sarkozy, but Rondot’s notes and testimony (leaked to Le Monde) contradict this – in fact, Rondot was told that the affair could blow up the President and that he had to concentrate on Sarkozy (presumably this meant that Sarkozy was being accused of plotting against Chirac).
Rondot made inquiries, consulting Lahoud, and concluded that the allegations were baseless. That was when things began to get weird, though, as the lists and a CD-ROM were sent anonymously to Renaud van Rumbeyke, the judge investigating the long-running urtext of French political corruption, the Taiwanese frigates affair. But the lists were not quite the same lists as those shown to General Rondot. Instead they included accounts in the thinly disguised name of Sarko, but also the Socialist Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the hard-right Alain Madelin, and the centre-left semi-gaullist Jean-Pierre ChevÃ©nÃ©ment, as well as top Thales and EADS executives.
Cazart! And so, the story reached the newspapers. What followed was a shitstorm of counteraccusations, which only got worse when Van Rumbeyke, like Rondot, discovered that the list had been doctored. Clearly someone was trying to get at someone. But who? De Villepin against Sarkozy? Chirac against Sarkozy? Sarkozy trying to portray De Villepin as an untrustworthy intriguer? Chirac against both of them? Or was the real fight between top management in the defence industry? Or were the secret services at war with each other?
Everyone promptly sued. But Sarkozy, according to yesterday’s LibÃ©ration, knew about the fake as early as mid-2004. So why didn’t he sue then? Nobody knows.
Since then, the leak of Rondot’s notes and testimony has shown with considerable certainty that De Villepin and probably Chirac were involved, or at least wanted something done towards Sarkozy. However, the anonymous leak of the doctored documents was a highly overdetermined event. Chirac and De Villepin both had a motive, means, and opportunity to dish Sarkozy. But were the other politicians included just for local colour, or because the opportunity was there to have a crack at one of the leading Socialists – but either Madelin or ChevÃ©nÃ©ment might conceivably have been a rightwing coalition partner? And then there were the aerospace bureaucrats.
At the time, a vicious struggle was going on for top control of EADS between a faction associated with Alain Gomez, the boss of Thales, and another around NÃ¶el Forgeard, the director of Airbus Industrie and (it must be noted) a close friend of Jacques Chirac. Enter Jean-Louis Gergorian, vice-president of EADS, partisan of Forgeard, close to the secret services..and M. Lahoud. Gergorian, it turns out, called on Van Rumbeyke shortly before the anonymous letter arrived and claimed that he had information on secret accounts belonging to politicians at Clearstream, that he was terrified of becoming the fifth corpse in the frigates affair, and that the Russian mafia was involved. Van Rumbeyke wisely didn’t tell anyone, for which some people are now threatening to have him disciplined and taken off the case…people who support the President, that is.
So Gomez and friends were added to the list. And Forgeard got the job at EADS. Gergorian has now gone on indefinite leave from EADS himself.
It must have seemed a perfect opportunity to whack Sarko, destabilise the Left with a scandal that would worsen their coalition fighting, punish Madelin for straying from the Gaullist core of the Right and ChevÃ©nÃ©ment for voting against the European Constitution (or something), eliminate obstacles to Forgeard’s elevation, and perhaps even get Van Rumbeyke off their case…literally. After all, his mission is to prise open the coffins of the defining scandal, the mother of all scandals, the vast kickbacks paid by Taiwan to French politicians and by Elf-Aquitaine to Taiwanese politicians around the 1991 sale of Thomson (now Thales)-built frigates to Taiwan, and the manifold connections to the rest of the Elf/Angola/Marchiani/Leuna complex of corruption. It’s a scandal that keeps on giving, like a pile of high-level radioactive waste still burning hot enough to melt the snows millions of years later.
You ask Gilbert Flam, investigating magistrate transferred to the internal secret service (the DST), who was commissioned to look into whether part of the estimated billion-euro kickback was reposing in a secret bank account in Japan, under the president’s control. First of all he was merely transferred off the case. Then, his name was added to the infamous list. According to Le Canard EnchainÃ©, it was because he really had discovered the cash…