Sarkozy vs. de Villepin: France's Trial of the Century

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Francois Mori / AP

Former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, followed by his wife Marie-Laure, arrives at a Paris courthouse on Sept. 21, 2009

The trial pitting French President Nicolas Sarkozy against fellow conservative and former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has just opened and already the French media is buzzing with words like hatred, treason and war. In the same courtroom in which a French revolutionary tribunal sentenced Marie Antoinette to the guillotine in 1793, a panel of judges will hear whether de Villepin was actively involved in a smear campaign that was apparently designed to torpedo Sarkozy's ultimately successful 2007 presidential bid. The outcome will determine whether the flamboyant de Villepin's political career dies on the spike of a guilty verdict — or allows him to continue his anti-Sarkozy drive, further strengthened by an acquittal.

The case is known as "Clearstream" — a reference to a Luxembourg bank in which a number of top French politicians and business figures purportedly held accounts containing illegal kickback money from arms contracts. Those claims turned out to be false — as was the forged list of names of 89 Clearstream account holders that was sent to a French investigating judge in 2004 by an anonymous whistle-blower. Among those cited were then Finance Minister Sarkozy, who at the time was locked in a fierce battle with his boss, Prime Minister de Villepin, over who would run as the right's standard-bearer in the 2007 elections to succeed conservative President Jacques Chirac. The court will examine whether de Villepin used what he eventually learned was a fraudulent list in the hope that it would scuttle Sarkozy's presidential bid.

The agonizingly twisted, confusing chronology of the case runs from 2003 to 2007, when de Villepin was formerly placed under investigation. The former Prime Minister is accused of "complicity in false accusation, complicity in using forgeries, receipt of stolen property and breach of trust" in complaints filed by 39 plaintiffs, first among them Sarkozy. Three other defendants join de Villepin on trial for their roles in producing, detaining and disseminating the Clearstream list.

As an unshakable Chirac supporter and longtime Elysée chief of staff, de Villepin shared his mentor's hatred of Sarkozy, who in 1994 dropped nearly 20 years of filial devotion to Chirac to back an unexpected presidential run by a rival conservative politician. Chirac won that contest — and promptly sent Sarkozy into political exile until 2002, when law-and-order hard-liner Sarkozy was tapped for a key Interior Ministry post. But neither Chirac nor de Villepin ever forgave Sarkozy.

By 2005, with Sarkozy's presidential run surging, Chirac threw his weight behind de Villepin as the right's candidate to retain the Elysée, eventually appointing his Dauphin as Prime Minister to enhance his chances. The question now before the court in Paris is whether that passionate anti-Sarkozy drive went so far as using illicit dirty tricks.

De Villepin denies that he sought to use the list as a way to smear Sarkozy — despite the fact that an intelligence agent he'd asked to investigate the list determined it was a forgery. Notes taken at the time by that same intelligence official suggest that de Villepin and Chirac wanted to exploit the list to undermine Sarkozy. "At no point did I ask for any investigation on any political figures," de Villepin told the press after he was questioned by investigators last year. "And at no point did I participate in any political maneuver."

Legal experts and commentators say the evidence against de Villepin is partial at best — and that a conviction will be difficult. Sarkozy, who will be represented by his lawyer in court because of constitutional restraints, has publicly said he wants to see the people responsible for Clearstream "hanging from a butcher's hook." That's one reason he became a civil party to the case. Another may well be his belief that a guilty verdict for de Villepin could be the only way to rid himself of the one conservative rival who has ceaselessly criticized his record as President.

The monthlong trial is a game for big stakes. For de Villepin, a conviction would mean a maximum five-year prison sentence and a 10-year ban from public office — a death blow to his political credibility. Acquittal, however, would allow de Villepin to claim the title as the main Clearstream victim — and add legal persecution to his long list of accusations to pound Sarkozy with.