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'Watergate' shakes Paris, but not voters

The 'Clearstream affair' implicates Chirac, Villepin in a smear campaign.

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The scandal has all the elements of a thriller: backstabbing politicians, a shadowy spy-master, mystery informants, secret foreign bank accounts, multimillion-dollar arms sales and illegal bribes.

And it has been shaking Paris for nearly a month, as daily revelations add to the Byzantine complexity of the allegations swirling around President Jacques Chirac and his prime minister, Dominique de Villepin.

But though the "Clearstream affair" has been branded "the French Watergate," most French voters remain unmoved. The reasons why provide grounds for both hope and misgivings about the health of French democracy.

On the one hand, pollsters have found, most people wish their politicians would stop obsessing over the latest scandalous twist in the affair and offer instead some ideas about the grave issues facing French society, such as its economic decline, unemployment, and its place in the world.

"That is the good news," says Philippe Manière, head of the Montaigne Institute, a think tank in Paris. The bad news, he adds, is that "the French public has become as cynical as its political leaders."

The allegations of misdeeds at the pinnacle of government "do not interest people much because they see them as business as usual," Mr. Manière suggests.

Headwaters of the scandal

Clearstream is the name of a banking clearing-house in Luxembourg. In 2004, an anonymous informant provided French judges with alleged lists of secret Clearstream accounts that suggested senior French politicians had used them to stash illegal kickbacks from a 1991 sale of frigates to Taiwan - a deal that had already been under investigation for several years.

Among those politicians was Nicolas Sarkozy, now the interior minister, and - then as now - the daggers-drawn rival of Mr. Villepin, who is Mr. Chirac's favorite to succeed him as president at elections next April.

Judicial inquiries have found the lists of accounts to be faked. One question is who faked them, and why. The anonymous informant turns out to have been Jean-Louis Gergorin, vice- president of the European aerospace and weapons firm EADS and an old friend of Mr. Villepin's.

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