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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 May 2006, 10:02 GMT 11:02 UK
French PM hits back over scandal
French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin addressing parliament, 2 May 06
Mr de Villepin has seen his opinion poll ratings plummet
French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has strongly denied claims that he targeted his rival Nicolas Sarkozy in a corruption investigation.

"Sarkozy's name was not mentioned in connection with this affair," Mr de Villepin told a news conference.

He was referring to a key January 2004 meeting when he had called for a probe into possible corruption linked to the sale of frigates to Taiwan.

Interior Minister Sarkozy says he was targeted in a political smear campaign.

Mr de Villepin has also claimed to be the victim of a "terrible campaign of slander and lies" in connection with the affair, known as the Clearstream scandal.

He and Mr Sarkozy are rivals to represent the centre-right in next year's presidential election.

Mr de Villepin said Mr Sarkozy's name had been mentioned "in his capacity as interior minister" at the meeting when a senior intelligence officer, Gen Philippe Rondot, had been asked to investigate the affair.

"I organised a meeting at my office in the foreign ministry, in my capacity as foreign minister, to check the likelihood of certain reports and I was careful to steer clear of any interference, any rivalry between different departments and in particular between the interior ministry, where Nicolas Sarkozy was, and the defence ministry," he said.

There had been allegations that senior French officials had laundered kickbacks from the sale of frigates to Taiwan through a Luxembourg-based finance house, Clearstream.

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