French ex-PM Villepin questioned in scam probe

Reuters News

9/11/2012 12:33:23 PM - Reuters News

PARIS (Reuters) - Former French prime minister and one-time presidential hopeful Dominique de Villepin was taken into police custody on Tuesday for questioning by magistrates investigating a suspected financial scam involving a luxury hotel network.

Villepin, prime minister in 2005-2007 under then president Jacques Chirac, was questioned about his ties to a man suspected of financial fraud and was released after seven hours, a police spokesman said.

The 58-year-old, best known internationally for announcing Chirac's refusal to join a war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq in an impassioned speech at the United Nations in 2003, denied any wrongdoing in the affair that surfaced publicly last December.

"I was able to restate calmly and simply in what is standard procedure that I'm in no way implicated in the sorry affair that involves one of my friends," Villepin said in a statement.

Magistrates are investigating whether a friend and political backer of Villepin siphoned off large sums of money when he was in charge of an association of luxury hotels called Relais & Chateaux.

Villepin was dragged into the probe after police phone taps exposed links between him and the man at the center of the probe, Regis Bulot, president of the Relais & Chateaux network until 2006 and a member of a Villepin support club.

The affair first emerged publicly in Le Monde newspaper late last year when Villepin was on the verge of entering May's presidential election race, a move he ultimately abandoned.

Le Monde said at the time it had access to phone tap records that raised police suspicion about possible attempts by Villepin to influence judicial inquiries into Bulot.

Villepin never held elected office but played a key role in French government for more than a decade, first as Chirac's chief-of-staff, then successively as foreign minister, interior minister and prime minister.

A prolific writer who has a legal firm of his own, Villepin has gone from one judicial imbroglio to another since his time as prime minister ended and his presidential ambitions started to take shape.

A year ago, an appeals court cleared him of charges he took part in a smear campaign against arch-foe Nicolas Sarkozy, who replaced Chirac as president and was unseated himself last May by Socialist Francois Hollande.

(Reporting by Gerard Bon, Thierry Leveque and Brian Love; Editing by Alison Williams)