One of the most complicated and acrimonious fistfights in recent French political history comes to a head Monday with the opening of a trial in which former prime minister Dominique de Villepin is accused of plotting to smear Nicolas Sarkozy before he became president.
The 55-year-old de Villepin is accused of conspiring to slander Sarkozy in 2004, when the pair were vying for the right-wing party nomination to succeed then-president Jacques Chirac, in what is known in France as "l'affaire Clearstream".
The trial is shaping up as a showdown between de Villepin and Sarkozy, whose mutual loathing in French political circles is legendary.
Sale of frigates 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's name appeared on the list. He was France's finance minister at the time.
He suspects de Villepin, former president Jacques Chirac's chosen heir, of planning to use the fake document in an attempt to scuttle his presidential bid for the 2007 election.
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 use of forgeries, dealing in stolen property and breach of trust.
Bloomberg columnist Celestine Bohlen told FRANCE 24: “De Villepin is definitely implicated. 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-euro fine if convicted.
Sarkozy's status as president 'undermines' fair trial
De Villepin's four lawyers are expected Monday to ask the Paris court to remove Sarkozy from the list of civil plaintiffs, arguing that his status as president undermines their client's right to a fair trial.
Ahead of the trial, the grey-haired former prime minister and foreign minister has waged a media offensive, accusing Sarkozy of playing the victim in the Clearstream affair to serve his own power-crazed agenda.
But 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 manoeuvrings, once and for all."
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.
Judges are expected to take several months to reach a verdict after the trial ends on October 23.
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.