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'Watergate' shakes Paris, but not voters

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

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Judges are still investigating the origins of those lists and the government has called for an investigation of the recent leaks of judicial evidence, particularly that provided by Rondot. It was the general's evidence, published at length in the daily Le Monde over the past month, that has heightened the scandal's profile and distracted politicians.

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"This is no longer a government, it is a battlefield," opposition Socialist party leader François Hollande charged during a no-confidence motion he brought before parliament last week. Though the motion failed, the debate highlighted Villepin's isolation: more than 200 of his fellow party members ostentatiously stayed away from the chamber during the prime minister's speech.

Possible boon for extreme right

Villepin's chances of becoming the ruling UMP's presidential candidate next year now appear slim, at best. But he is not the only one to have suffered a blow to his prestige. The whole political class, and especially those politicians currently in power, have been tarred with the Clearstream brush.

Among the general public the complexity of the case means "there is a vague sense that bad things have been happening, that people at the top have been misbehaving, but nobody really knows what has been going on or who is responsible," says Jean-Luc Parodi, who teaches politics at the Political Studies Institute in Paris.

"That plays against everyone who embodies politics or power," he adds. An opinion poll published last week found that 69 percent of the French trust neither the right nor the left to lead their country.

That has raised fears among mainstream politicians that outsiders such as extreme-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen might take advantage of the scandal. President Chirac, condemning what he called a "dictatorship of rumors" last week, warned that the leaks risked making voters "despair of politics."

"Le Pen denounces all politicians as rotten, and everything we see seems to be going in that direction," says Paul Godt, a professor of politics at the American University of Paris. "It just seems to confirm Le Pen's analysis."

Not a hot watercooler topic

French voters are confused by the Clearstream affair but so unsurprised by it that only 17 percent of them discuss the scandal over the watercooler, according to Stéphane Rozès, an analyst with the CSA polling firm.

That is partly because the French have always expected self-interest, not morality, to govern politics, he says. But more important, he adds, the lack of interest illustrates how "the French have recently started to expect more of their politicians. They want them to resolve questions about our social model, our place in the world, about change. They don't want to see political debate diverted to secondary issues, and they see this as a secondary issue."

"Social anxieties trump scandal," agrees Mr. Parodi. Especially, he adds, when the scandal "is neither comprehensible nor easily blamed on anyone in particular."