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French ex-PM Villepin taken into custody

PARIS--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 centre 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.”

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