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De Villepin launches spirited offensive on first day of trial


Video by Rebecca BOWRING

Text by FRANCE 24 (with wires)

Latest update : 2009-09-22

A trial pitting President Nicolas Sarkozy against his arch rival, former PM Dominique de Villepin, opened on Monday amid questions of whether de Villepin can get a fair trial with the sitting president as a plaintiff.

One of the most acrimonious rivalries in recent French politics got under way Monday with the opening of a trial in which former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin is accused of plotting to defame Nicolas Sarkozy before he became president by falsely accusing him of receiving kickbacks.

As Villepin arrived at the courthouse on Monday flanked by his wife and children, he insisted that the case was being propelled by Sarkozy alone.


"I am here because of one man's will," he said upon arriving at court. "I am here because of the dogged determination of one man, Nicolas Sarkozy."


"I will come out of this a free man and exonerated," he told reporters. "I know that truth will prevail."

The 55-year-old de Villepin is accused of conspiring to include Sarkozy on a 2004 list of those receiving illegal payments -- a list de Villepin knew was forged -- when the two men were vying for their party's nomination to succeed then-President Jacques Chirac.


The trial, in what is known in France as "l'affaire Clearstream", is shaping up to be a showdown between de Villepin and Sarkozy, whose mutual loathing is legendary in French political circles.


For their part, the lawyers for both sides are facing off over whether Sarkozy's involvement in the case is allowed under the French constitution. De Villepin's lawyer, Henri Leclerc, has asked that the court strip Sarkozy of his status as a civil plaintiff, arguing that his client cannot get a fair trial against a sitting head of state.


"We want to be tried according to fair procedures," Leclerc said on Monday.


But Sarkozy's lawyer, Thierry Herzog, argues that the president is "a civil party like any other".


Moreover, he says, "This case is not, at root, a question of whether the constitution allows Nicolas Sarkozy to be a civil plaintiff".


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, now the head of the International Monetary Fund.


Sarkozy insists he only wants the truth to come out. "I've always said that I wanted to know who put my name on that list and why," he said earlier this month. "It is high time that we get rid of all of these political maneuverings, once and for all."


Sale of warships to Taiwan


The case centres on a list that surfaced in 2004 -- and has since proved to have been a forgery -- of account holders at the Luxembourg-based Clearstream financial clearing house who allegedly received kickbacks from the sale of French frigates to Taiwan in 1991.


Sarkozy, France's finance minister at the time, appeared on the list. 


Sarkozy accuses de Villepin, former President Jacques Chirac's chosen heir, of planning to use the fake document in an attempt to scuttle his 2007 presidential bid.


A suave diplomat whose stirring speech against the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 drew applause at the United Nations, de Villepin is accused of complicity in slander and in the use of forgeries, dealing in stolen property and breach of trust.


“De Villepin is definitely implicated," says Bloomberg columnist Celestine Bohlen, in an interview with FRANCE 24. "But the real question is why, once de Villepin knew that the list was fake, he didn't put a stop to [the allegations]. It is on this question that the evidence is strongest.


“It is not so much that he was party to the falsification, but that once the falsification became known to him he should have been able to put a stop to it.”


De Villepin, who denies the allegations, faces up to five years in jail and a €45,000 fine if convicted.


A 'Who's Who' of big names


Dubbed the trial of the decade, the judicial drama features a "Who's Who" cast of big names in politics, industry and intelligence circles.


The hearings before the Paris criminal court could also cast light on the murky dealings of French intelligence and at one of the world's top aerospace firms, the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS).


Four other defendants also face charges in the case, including Jean-Louis Gergorin, a former EADS vice-president and associate of de Villepin, who admitted to leaking the bogus list to investigators in 2004.


Imad Lahoud, a computer expert and ex-EADS employee, is suspected of having falsified the list with de Villepin's knowledge.



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


Among the star witnesses are several former spymasters including Yves Bertrand and General Philippe Rondot, whose notes -- seized by investigators -- detail secret meetings with de Villepin.


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


Date created : 2009-09-21