Ex-PM Villepin reeling from spy testimony in French trial

7th October 2009, Comments 0 comments

The ex-prime minister and foreign minister has denied taking part in a plot to slander Sarkozy and ruin his chances at the presidency at a time when the two men were leading contenders to succeed Jacques Chirac.

Paris -- Former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin was left smarting Tuesday after the much-awaited testimony of a spymaster linked him to a smear campaign against Nicolas Sarkozy.

The ex-prime minister and foreign minister has denied taking part in a plot to slander Sarkozy and ruin his chances at the presidency at a time when the two men were leading contenders to succeed Jacques Chirac.

In testimony last week, Villepin denied ordering intelligence official General Philippe Rondot to zero in on Sarkozy during a probe of a list of influential people suspected of taking bribes.

Then on Monday, in a serious setback to Villepin's case that was seen as a turning point in the trial by many commentators, Rondot said he clearly remembered Sarkozy's name being raised at the meeting in January 2004.

"Rondot has confirmed everything that Dominique de Villepin was denying," said Sarkozy's lawyer Thierry Herzog in a radio interview Tuesday.

French newspapers agreed the testimony was a blow to Villepin's defence.

Rondot "buried the former prime minister," wrote the left-wing Liberation.

"The testimony that rattles Villepin," read the headline in the pro-Sarkozy Le Figaro daily.

Rondot said Jean-Louis Gergorin, former vice president of aerospace giant EADS and a defendant in the case, was at the meeting and drew his attention to the presence of the name "Bocsa" on the list, linking it to Sarkozy.

"I noted this down without understanding it," Rondot said.

Sarkozy's father was a Hungarian emigre and the president was christened Nicolas Sarkozy de Nagy Bocsa.

Rondot told the court Villepin had assured him that his enquiry into the names on the alleged list of accountholders at a Luxembourg clearing house -- now known to have been fabricated -- had the backing of Chirac.

Rondot rapidly concluded the list was fake, but after a scandal exploded linking Sarkozy to the alleged kickbacks scheme, Villepin was accused of manipulating the inquiry to smear his rival.

The intelligence chief's testimony was backed up by his notes of the encounter, which are considered a key piece of evidence in the case.

"These verbatim accounts carefully retrace the meetings I had," Rondot told the court. "In France, soldiers don't have the best of reputations, but I don't have the I.Q. of a shellfish. I was acting as an intelligence officer.

"My methods were perhaps unusual, but I'm not a loose cannon. I'm an intelligence officer working for the state," he said, complaining that he had been "manipulated" by Villepin and the other defendants.

"I always thought that the inquiry had been ordered by the president, otherwise I wouldn't have carried it out."

Villepin, a suave 55-year-intellectual, testified last week that he had had France's interests at heart when he asked Rondot to investigate the list.

"At no time was the name of Nicolas Sarkozy or any of his patronymic names raised during this meeting in connection with these shady dealings," he said.

Villepin faces up to five years in jail if convicted of conspiracy to slander, forgery and use of stolen documents, and breach of trust.

Dubbed the trial of the decade, the Clearstream case features a Who's Who of big names in French politics, industry and intelligence circles, beginning with Sarkozy, who is a civil plaintiff in the case.

Others are on trial including Gergorin and Imad Lahoud, a former EADS employee with ties to intelligence, who has admitted that he added Sarkozy's name to the bogus list.

Much of the furore surrounding the "trial of the decade" has focused on the bitter feud raging between Sarkozy and Villepin, who has accused his enemy of abusing his presidential role to influence the investigation.

The trial is scheduled to end on 23 October and judges are expected to take several months to render a verdict.

AFP/Expatica

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