With Smear Scandal, France Near Paralysis

By John Ward Anderson and Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 6, 2006

PARIS -- When French criminal investigators finish their probe of the smear, who was smeared and who did the smearing may be little more than a footnote.

A burgeoning political scandal of alleged dirty tricks involving the cabinet's two top ministers has tainted the entire French government, pushing it to the brink of paralysis and collapse in the final year of President Jacques Chirac's administration, according to government officials and political analysts.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin faces daily calls for his resignation. Flanked by somber-faced ministers, he told reporters at a packed news conference Thursday that the corruption investigation would "not deter me one second from my mission."

What's known as the Clearstream scandal centers on whether Villepin secretly ordered a criminal investigation to damage the reputation of Interior Ministry Nicolas Sarkozy, Villepin's party colleague and rival for the presidency. Villepin on Thursday denied ordering the probe, calling allegations that he did "lies, slander and attacks."

The investigation is the latest blow to a government already weakened by riots last fall in immigrant-populated suburbs of Paris and around the country and crippling student demonstrations and workers' strikes this spring.

"The situation is extremely volatile," said Renaud Dehousse, director of the Center for European Studies at the Institute of Political Sciences in Paris. "The government has lost any credibility whatsoever."

The scandal is unfolding as French politicians and pundits struggle to assign blame for decay in many aspects of French society -- government, economy, and the nation's general standing in the world.

"The problem in France is that the political and diplomatic and official elite are stuck in a time warp of believing in l'exception fran├žaise ," said Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform in London, referring to a belief that France is in a class of its own.

In an opinion poll published this week by the newspaper Liberation, Villepin's approval rating was 20 percent, only 2 percentage points above the record low for a prime minister, set in 1992. Previous polls indicated that only 1 percent of surveyed French voters wanted Chirac to seek reelection.

Villepin was appointed by Chirac and has never held elective office. For many in France, he has come to epitomize a political elite deemed out of touch with most voters. Those calling on him to step down include members of his own party.

"Why doesn't Villepin resign?" said Cyril Enghin, 25, a physics student. "Nobody supports him anymore."

The weakness of the government and an opinion backlash against immigration following last fall's violence has allowed the resurgence by France's ultra-nationalist candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front. He had approval rates of 12 to 14 percent in recent opinion polls.

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