French ex-PM Villepin grilled over embezzlement scheme

AFP , Tuesday 11 Sep 2012

Former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin faces investigations over an embezzlement scheme that was revealed through a phone call bugged by police last year

French police on Tuesday questioned ex-prime minister Dominique de Villepin over an alleged embezzlement scheme at a luxury hotel chain that was run by a friend of the conservative politician.

A source close to the probe said the interrogation was pre-arranged with police and was part of the inquiry into the Relais & Chateaux chain, whose former chairman, Regis Bulot, is accused of involvement in fraud.

Bulot, 64, was taken into custody last November on charges of organised fraud and money laundering. He is suspected of embezzling 1.6 million euros ($2 million) between 2002 and 2008. He was released in June.

Villepin in 2011 allegedly made a phone call – bugged by police – on behalf of Bulot in which he bragged about putting pressure on the new management of Relais & Chateaux not to co-operate with a police probe.

The politician, who served as prime minister under president Jacques Chirac from May 2005 till May 2007, holidayed with his wife at a Relais & Chateaux resort on the French Caribbean island of Martinique in 2005.

Villepin, a suave diplomat best remembered for leading the charge against the Iraq war at the United Nations in 2003, has denied any knowledge of an embezzlement scheme.

He was last year cleared of wrongdoing in an alleged smear campaign against ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, a bitter political rival.

In September a lawyer widely reported to be close to Sarkozy also implicated Villepin in a scandal involving huge sums of cash allegedly handed over by African leaders to politicians.

Robert Bourgi said he had personally handed $20 million in cash from several presidents of France's former African colonies to Chirac and Villepin – a claim that both furiously denied.

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