Former French PM denies plotting against Sarkozy

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Former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin denied in court on Wednesday taking part in a plot to smear Nicolas Sarkozy and ruin his chances at the presidency.

Villepin is on trial on charges of conspiring to slander Sarkozy in 2003-2004 by implicating him in a corruption scandal at a time when the two men were locked in a vicious competition to succeed president Jacques Chirac.

During more than seven hours of grilling on his first day of testimony, Villepin denied having leaked a fake list of politicians and prominent people who allegedly took bribes from the sale of French warships to Taiwan.

Sarkozy's name was on the list of account holders from the Clearstream clearing house in Luxembourg and the French president claims the scandal was fabricated as part of an elaborate ploy to block his path to the Elysée.

"You can try to draw as many lines as you can, but you will never prove my involvement as a minister in actions that I did not commit," Villepin told a Paris criminal court under cross-examination from Sarkozy's lawyer.

Once Chirac's chosen heir, Villepin now faces up to five years in jail and a EUR 45,000 fine (USD 66,000) if convicted of complicity to slander, use of forgeries, dealing in stolen property and breach of trust.

Villepin's testimony, in the same Paris courtroom where Marie Antoinette was sentenced to the guillotine in 1793, was seen as a high point in the trial, now in its second week.

"I am happy to bring my contribution to the emergence of truth in a case where lies and manipulation have clouded the truth," Villepin told reporters before entering the courtroom.

Dressed in a dark suit and speaking in a calm voice, Villepin also sought to dispel any suspicion that may have been hanging over Chirac in the affair and testified that the ex-president was not directly involved.

"There were never any presidential instructions in the Clearstream affair and I never transmitted instructions from Jacques Chirac," he said.

The 55-year-old Villepin testified that he had France's interests at heart when he asked an intelligence chief to investigate the list during a January 2004 meeting.

"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.

That testimony contradicted the account given by the intelligence chief, General Philippe Rondot, whose notes seized by investigators suggested that Villepin had ordered him to focus on Sarkozy in the probe.

Villepin insisted that in early 2004 he was concerned by France's security in the context of heightened tensions over the Iraq war and was worried that the list could be used against Chirac's government.

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.

Four other men are on trial including Jean-Louis Gergorin, an ex-vice president at aerospace giant EADS, and Imad Lahoud, a former EADS employee with ties to intelligence, who has testified that he added Sarkozy's name to the bogus list.

The trial that has riveted France opened last Monday with Villepin directly accusing Sarkozy of showing a "dogged determination" to see him in the dock and charging that the entire case was politically driven.

Villepin renewed the charge during testimony, saying that Sarkozy had showed a "relentlessness to destroy a political adversary" and that the case was "built unilaterally, for the benefit of one party."

Much of the public interest in the trial has focused on the bitter feud raging between Sarkozy and Villepin.

Villepin on Monday filed suit against Sarkozy after the president called him and other defendants "guilty" during a nationally televised interview last week.

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


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