French ex-PM Villepin taken into custody in scam investigation

Reuters News

9/11/2012 7:56:27 AM - Reuters News

PARIS (Reuters) - French former 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, who served under former President Jacques Chirac, as his chief-of-staff, foreign minister and ultimately prime minister from 2005 and 2007, was questioned about his links with a man suspected of financial fraud, 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 when the fraud affair surfaced last December.

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 surfaced when Villepin was on the verge of entering the May presidential election race, a move he ultimately abandoned. When he was linked to the case in December he told the Le Monde daily newspaper: "It's unbearable that I am being implicated in a matter I have nothing to do with."

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, a prolific writer who has a legal firm of his own, 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 Andrew Osborn)