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De Villepin verdict imminent

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2010-01-28

Dominique de Villepin, France's ex prime minister, accused of using unfair smear tactics to wreck long-time rival Nicolas Sarkozy's 2004 presidential bid, finds out his fate Thursday.

AFP - A French court hands down a verdict Thursday in the trial of ex-prime minister Dominique de Villepin, who stands accused of trying to torpedo long-time rival Nicolas Sarkozy's bid for the presidency.

An acquittal would allow Villepin to claim victory in the five-year legal saga and bolster his chances of a political comeback as he sets his sights on the 2012 presidential vote.

Prosecutors in France's trial of the decade are asking for a suspended jail sentence of 18 months and a 45,000-euro (70,000-dollar) fine for Villepin on charges of complicity to slander Sarkozy using a fake list of bank accounts.

The silver-haired career diplomat has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence.

"I am awaiting the judgement with much serenity, the serenity that comes from knowing that you have nothing to be ashamed of," Villepin said in a video posted on a website run by his supporters.

"It has been five years since this affair started and I am happy that it is coming to an end," he said.

The verdict coincidentally comes down on Sarkozy's 55th birthday and while the president will be chairing a meeting at the Elysee palace to agree on measures to curb France's ballooning deficit.

Villepin, who became a global star for opposing the US invasion of Iraq at the United Nations, is accused of plotting to smear Sarkozy in 2004 when the two men were manoeuvring to succeed president Jacques Chirac.Facts:Villepin:one in a line of French leaders on trial

The complex case centres on a list -- later proved to have been fabricated -- of account holders at the Clearstream financial clearing house who allegedly took bribes from the sale of French warships to Taiwan.

De Villepin - A Portrait

Sarkozy's name was on the list and the French leader alleges the scandal was fabricated to tarnish him ahead of his party's nomination for the 2007 presidential vote, which he won.

Dubbed the Clearstream affair, the scandal made frontpage news across France in 2005 and Sarkozy, then Chirac's ambitious finance minister, reportedly swore he would hang those responsible on a "butcher's hook".

Sarkozy is one of 39 civil plaintiffs in the case that has also exposed the murky ties between France's political elite and the secret services.

The sensational trial opened in September in the courtroom where Marie Antoinette was sentenced to the guillotine in 1793, with Villepin accusing Sarkozy of pursuing a personal vendetta against him.

Prosecutors argued that while Villepin did not deliberately take part in a plot to smear Sarkozy, he did nothing to stop the scandal from spiralling out of control because he hoped to gain a political advantage.

During the month-long trial, Villepin defended himself vigorously, saying he never knew that the list was false and never sought to use it against Sarkozy.

The silver-haired 56-year-old politician and author hopes an acquittal will help propel his political career at a time when Sarkozy is struggling with poor approval ratings.

In the week before the verdict, Villepin made a high-profile visit to a Paris suburb, declaring that he offered a "political alternative" to Sarkozy and was ready to "serve France and the French."

"If he is completely cleared he will come out of this stronger and be able to relaunch his career. And he will do it," said political analyst Dominique Moisi.

While most observers agree Sarkozy has a near-stranglehold on his governing right-wing UMP party, Villepin has been able to draw a small loyal group of supporters from the party's disenchanted centre-right.

Four other defendants will hear their verdict for their role in the smear campaign, including former aerospace executive Jean-Louis Gergorin who has admitted leaking the list to investigators, and Imad Lahoud, a former EADS employee who has testified that he added Sarkozy's name to the bogus list.

Journalist Denis Robert and junior accountant Florian Bourges have also been charged for handing over Clearstream files to Lahoud, who said he later falsified them.

Date created : 2010-01-28