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French smear trial accused gives testimony in art

Published on 12/10/2009

Paris -- Scribbled notes from SMS messages, newspaper clippings and torn strips of bank documents form a greyish backdrop to the canvas while bold red letters scream out "Wanted. Me."

The powerful work is part of an exhibition at a Paris gallery by journalist-turned-artist Denis Robert, who is in the dock alongside ex-prime minister Dominique de Villepin in France’s trial of the decade.

Robert and four others are charged with taking part in a vast plot hatched to smear President Nicolas Sarkozy with a fake list of influential people said to have taken bribes from an arms sale.

The art show features more than 70 paintings focusing on the so-called Clearstream affair that has been at the centre of Robert’s life since he first published a book about the scandal in 2001.

Robert uses names, words, scraps of paper from his notebooks and newspaper clippings to produce works that have a strong political message denouncing the world of high-flying international finance.

The exhibition opens with "The Galactics," a display of 11 floor rags hanging from a string with the names Nick Leeson, Yusuo Hamanaka, Bernard Madoff and other fraudsters embroidered in gold thread.

On a large black canvas, Robert has written the names of hundreds of people and businesses connected to the Clearstream scandal with the inscription "Love Story" scrawled in red across the tableau.

"It’s a counter-view. What unites all these people really is hate," said Robert.

The former journalist for the left-wing Liberation newspaper has lost libel lawsuits to Clearstream for describing the Luxembourg-based financial clearing house as a huge money-laundering and tax evasion operation.

In one of his works, the sentence "I will never say anything bad about Clearstream again" has been copied out one hundred times in red, blue and white paint.

"I come from a writing background and my way of expression is words. I work with words," he said.

In the Clearstream trial, Robert is charged with trafficking in stolen property for having passed on bank documents to Imad Lahoud, another accused who has testified that he falsified the list of account holders to add Sarkozy’s name.

Robert, who faces up to five years in jail, has pleaded innocent and argues he was merely doing his job as a journalist when he came across the stolen list that was later doctored.

Over the past two weeks, the accused journalist has been turning up at the Paris criminal court three times a week for long, drawn out hearings.

In the evening, Robert returns to the Montmartre studio on the top floor of the gallery and sometimes picks up his paint brushes as a form of catharsis.

Some of his "graffiti" works produced during the trial have been added to the exhibition such as a sheet of paper displaying account information with the words "Banking secrecy is the rich man’s right" painted in red.

"I really do feel safe in an art studio," said Robert. "The police haven’t raided this place yet," he quipped.

Eight of Robert’s paintings have been sold so far, said gallery owner Eric Landau, who noted that some of the buyers were lawyers who "decided they needed a work of art like this in their lives."

The art show runs until October 30, a week after the trial ends. Robert is not expected to hear the judges’ verdict in the case before several months.