Former French PM attacks Sarkozy as smear trial opens

France’s former prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, assailed Nicolas Sarkozy as he went on trial Monday on charges of plotting to smear his arch-rival and torpedo his bid for the presidency.

“I am here because of one man’s will. I am here because of the dogged determination of one man, Nicolas Sarkozy, who is also president of the French republic,” he said as he arrived at the Paris court with his wife and children.

“I will come out of this a free man and exonerated,” he told reporters before entering the courtroom where in 1793 Marie Antoinette was sentenced to the guillotine. “I know that truth will prevail.”

The former prime minister and foreign minister faces charges of conspiring to defame Sarkozy in 2004 when the pair were in a fierce battle to win their right-wing party’s nomination to succeed then-president Jacques Chirac.

The case centres on a list—found to have been fabricated—of account holders at the Clearstream financial clearing house in Luxembourg who allegedly took bribes from the sale of French warships to Taiwan.

One name on the bogus list was that of Sarkozy, then France’s ambitious finance minister who suspected Villepin, Chirac’s chosen heir, of planning to use the fake document to wreck his presidential bid.

The 55-year-old Villepin, who denies any wrongdoing, faces up to five years in jail and a €45 000 fine if convicted.

The suave career diplomat, whose stirring speech against the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 drew applause at the United Nations, is accused of complicity in defamation and using forgeries, dealing in stolen property and breach of trust.

Dubbed France’s political trial of the decade, the judicial drama features a Who’s Who cast of big names in French politics, industry and intelligence circles, beginning with Sarkozy, who is a civil plaintiff in the case.

Villepin’s lawyers went on the offensive at the outset of the hearings, asking the court to strip Sarkozy of his status as a civil plaintiff to ensure their client gets a fair trial.

“We want to be tried through a fair procedure,” said defence lawyer Henri Leclerc.

Sarkozy registered as a plaintiff in 2006 to gain access to the case files and secure his right to seek damages, as have 39 others, including Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund.

Representing the president, who was not present at the trial, lawyer Thierry Herzog argued that his legal action pre-dated the charges against Villepin and reflected Sarkozy’s desire to know the truth about the fake listing.

The Clearstream trial has become a new clash between Villepin and Sarkozy, whose mutual hatred is legendary in French political circles.

But the month-long hearings before the Paris criminal court could also cast light on the murky dealings of French intelligence and at top aerospace company EADS.

Also on trial was former EADS vice-president Jean-Louis Gergorin, who has admitted to leaking the bogus list to investigators, and Imad Lahoud, an ex-EADS employee, suspected of falsifying the list.

Management consultant Florian Bourges is accused of stealing Clearstream documents and journalist Denis Robert, who broke the story, is charged with dealing in stolen property.

Among the star witnesses to be heard in the coming weeks are former spymasters including Yves Bertrand and General Philippe Rondot, whose notes—seized by investigators—detail his secret meetings with Villepin about the Clearstream affair.

Villepin is expected to take the stand next week.

Judges are expected to take several months to reach a verdict after the trial ends on October 23.—AFP

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