Former French premier goes on trial over smear scandal

Former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin went on trial on Monday, accused of conspiring to smear Nicolas Sarkozy in 2004 and wreck his chances of becoming president.

The trial, due to run for a month, will focus on the biggest political scandal France has seen in years — a tortuous and murky affair worthy of a thriller, featuring forged documents, spies and bitter enmities.

The so-called ”Clearstream affair” nearly destroyed the centre-right government of the then president Jacques Chirac in which the former diplomat Villepin and the blunt-spoken outsider Sarkozy were rival ministers.

Villepin is accused of trying to have forged documents planted in a judicial corruption investigation with the aim of discrediting Sarkozy as the two manoeuvred to succeed the ageing Chirac at the 2007 presidential election.

He denies any wrongdoing and says he is himself the victim of injustice. He accuses Sarkozy of being obsessed by the case and arguing that the president’s involvement in the trial as a civil plaintiff has distorted proceedings.

”I am here because of one man’s decision and one man’s obsession,” Villepin said as he arrived at the courthouse with his wife and three children.

”I will emerge free and with my name cleared,” he added.

If found guilty, Villepin, whose won global fame in 2003 with an impassioned speech at the United Nations against the United States-led invasion of Iraq, could face up to five years in prison and a fine of €45 000 ($66 150).

Anonymous informant
He is charged with ”complicity in defamation and the use of forged documents and possession of goods obtained by breach of trust and theft”.

The ”Clearstream affair” surfaced in 2004, when a judge investigating a corruption case linked to an arms deal with Taiwan was sent documents by an anonymous informant implicating a host of prominent names, including Sarkozy, in the affair.

The documents included a huge list of accounts, purportedly held at the Luxembourg-based financial institution Clearstream, with the suggestion that they were linked to Taiwan, as well as criminal groups including the Russian mafia.

The documents were quickly unmasked as fake and the investigation switched to seeing who was behind the manoeuvre.

The anonymous informant who sent the list was identified as Jean-Louis Gergorin, a former executive of aerospace group EADS with close links to the French intelligence services.

Another ex-EADS employee, a former trader and computer specialist named Imad Lahoud, is accused of falsifying the list of accounts. Both are also on trial.

Prosecutors believe that Villepin, who was foreign and then interior minister at the time, directed Gergorin to send the documents to the judge anonymously, even though he knew them to be falsified, with the aim of damaging his rival Sarkozy.

Sarkozy was never tarred by the scandal and cruised to victory in the 2007 presidential election. Villepin quit frontline politics and subsequently qualified as a lawyer. — Reuters

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