Many questions still as French smear trial heads to finale

19th October 2009, Comments 0 comments

France's trial of the decade heads to its finale this week with many questions left unanswered about who was behind a sinister plot to wreck Nicolas Sarkozy's bid for the presidency.

Former prime minister Dominique de Villepin and four others are accused of conspiracy to slander Sarkozy in 2004 with falsified bank documents implicating him in a bribe-taking scheme.

The sensational trial opened a month ago in the courtroom where Marie Antoinette was sentenced to the guillotine in 1793, with Villepin accusing his long-time rival Sarkozy of pursuing a personal vendetta against him.

"I will come out of this a free man and exonerated," the silver-haired poet-politician declared on the first day.

Three weeks of testimony have yielded mostly contradictory versions of the events and judges will probably be forced to pour over the 40 volumes of written evidence to reach a verdict, expected some time in January.

The complex case centres on a fake list of account holders from the Clearstream financial clearing house who were said to have received kickbacks from the sale of French frigates to Taiwan.

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

Villepin, the suave career diplomat, and Sarkozy, the ambitious outsider, were both ministers jostling to succeed president Jacques Chirac when the Clearstream affair began making headlines in mid-2004.

The final week of hearings will likely see a clash on Monday when Sarkozy sends his lawyer Thierry Herzog to court to deliver closing arguments on his behalf before the defence and prosecution give their final summations.

Sarkozy is one of 39 civil plaintiffs who consider themselves victims in the affair.

Among the five men on trial, mathematician Imad Lahoud has testified that he added Sarkozy's patronymic names "Nagy de Bocsa" to the Clearstream list at the urging of aerospace executive Jean-Louis Gergorin, a close Villepin associate.

Gergorin, a co-defendant, has labelled Lahoud's version of events "absolutely ludicrous" as has former spymaster Yves Bertrand who, according to Lahoud, summoned both men to his office to tamper with the list.

But the most potentially damaging testimony to Villepin has come from General Philippe Rondot, an intelligence agent famous for having tracking down Carlos the Jackal in Sudan.

His notes detailing secret meetings with Villepin are seen as key evidence in the trial.

Rondot recounted a January 2004 meeting during which Villepin allegedly asked him to investigate the list and zero in on Sarkozy, suggesting the former prime minister was interested in using the information against his rival.

Villepin has denied raising Sarkozy's name at the meeting, but Rondot has stuck to his version.

Once Chirac's preferred heir, Villepin now faces up to five years in jail if convicted of conspiracy to slander, forgery and use of stolen documents and breach of trust.

The former prime minister, who led the charge against the US invasion of Iraq at the United Nations, is hoping for an acquittal that would allow him to bounce back into politics.

"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.

An Ifop poll released last week showed Villepin's approval rating at 47 percent, slightly above that of Sarkozy, at 44 percent.


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