France braces for political ‘trial of the decade’

France’s most politically charged trial of the decade begins in a week, but the explosive Clearstream case is already playing itself out in the court of public opinion.

Former prime minister Dominique de Villepin, the suave diplomat best remembered for leading the charge against the Iraq war at the United Nations, is accused of plotting to smear Nicolas Sarkozy, his then-rival for the French presidency.

Villepin will be in the dock from next Monday and as fate would have it, he will find himself in the exact Paris courtroom where Marie Antoinette was sentenced to the guillotine in 1793.

Dubbed the trial of the decade by the French press, the judicial drama features a cast of powerful players in politics, industry and intelligence circles, beginning with Sarkozy himself, who is a civil plaintiff in the case.

The complex case dates back to 2004 and centres on a list — later proved to be false — of account holders at the Clearstream bank who allegedly received kickbacks from the sale of French frigates to Taiwan.

One name on the bogus list was Sarkozy, the ambitious finance and interior minister under president Jacques Chirac, who for years groomed Villepin as his heir to the Elysee.

The trial is shaping up as a showdown between arch-rivals Villepin and Sarkozy, but witnesses could lift the lid on the murky dealings of French intelligence and of one of the world’s top aerospace companies, EADS.

Two EADS executives, ex-vice president Jean-Louis Gergorin and research chief Imad Lahoud, will also face charges along with journalist Denis Robert, who broke the story, and accountant Florian Bourges, accused of stealing the lists from Clearstream.

Gergorin, a 63-year-old foreign affairs expert and former Villepin associate, has admitted to leaking the false Clearstream list to investigators in 2004.

Known as ”the mathematician,” 41-year-old Lahoud added a new twist to the case this month when it emerged that he had confessed to adding Sarkozy’s name to the bogus list. He has implicated Villepin in the conspiracy.

Feeding into the pre-trial frenzy, former intelligence chief Yves Bertrand has published a book that backs Villepin’s view of Sarkozy as seeking to turn the whole affair to his advantage.

In the weeks leading up to the trial, 55-year-old Villepin has waged a media offensive, accusing Sarkozy of ”being a bit twisted” for insisting that the Clearstream affair was a plot to sabotage his presidential bid.

”I’ve always said that I wanted to know who put my name on that list and why,” Sarkozy said last week. ”It is high time that we get rid of all of these manoeuvres, once and for all.”

Villepin faces up to five years in jail if convicted on charges of ”complicity to slander, complicity to use forgeries, receipt of stolen property and breach of trust”.

If he walks free, the former prime minister has floated the idea of challenging Sarkozy for the party nomination for the 2012 presidential vote, although his chances of a comeback are seen as slim.

”This slander case is far from being banal. This trial promises to be unparalleled,” wrote Pascal Junghans, an expert on French intelligence who writes for the business daily La Tribune.

The case has already led to a shakeup in the ruling party, where the Villepin-Chirac clique of followers has been weakened and sidelined, according to Junghans.

At Airbus parent company EADS, the affair prompted the German partners to press for a full house clean-up while Sarkozy himself moved to overhaul French intelligence, another Clearstream casualty, he said.

Sarkozy has ordered a full restructuring of the DST counter-intelligence domestic agency and the RG police intelligence, naming key ally Bernard Squarcini as spy chief.

Squarcini is one of the 41 civil plaintiffs in the Clearstream trial, set to run from September 21 to October 21. — AFP



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Carole Landry
Carole Landry
Carole Landry covers the United Nations for @AFP. Postings in Moscow, Washington, Johannesburg and Paris.

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