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Trial pits Sarkozy against longtime rival

The scandal at the heart of court proceedings against Dominique de Villepin, who challenged Sarkozy for the presidency in 2007, has been likened to Watergate, but the French have mostly shrugged.

October 22, 2009|Devorah Lauter

PARIS — It's the duel of the decade, if you believe the French press, which has lavishly painted a monthlong trial pitting former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin against his longtime rival, President Nicolas Sarkozy, as the ultimate battle between France's alpha politicians.

"Who will kill whom?" ran a recent headline in the French weekly Jeune Afrique. The left-leaning satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo ran a cartoon of a devil-horned Sarkozy holding up De Villepin's head and gripping a bloodstained knife labeled Clearstream, a reference to the bank clearing house at the center of the trial.

The media have reveled in the dramatic juxtaposition of a short, pugnacious Sarkozy against the cool-tempered, tall and unfailingly tanned De Villepin, in a dramatic case many have dubbed "Watergate a la francaise."

Luxembourg-based Clearstream is where some members of France's political and business elite, including Sarkozy, were alleged to have hidden shady cash from the 1991 sale of warships to Taiwan. A list of the purported kickbacks surfaced in 2004 -- and was soon revealed to be a hoax.

Now French prosecutors accuse De Villepin of knowing the list was fake and not stopping a smear campaign that threatened Sarkozy's election to France's presidential throne. The trial hearings end Friday and a final verdict is expected early next year.

Sarkozy filed a formal complaint in connection with the case, as have dozens of others. Yet the eloquent De Villepin has proved a daunting rival. He has used the trial to depict himself as the victim of an obsessed Sarkozy bent on destroying his political career.

"Nicolas Sarkozy promised to hang me from a meat hook; I see that he kept his promise," De Villepin said to journalists Tuesday following a recommendation by France's chief prosecutor that the court give the former prime minister an 18-month suspended sentence and a fine equivalent to $67,370. (Sarkozy reportedly once made the meat hook comment about those accusing him of corrupt dealings.)

In the end, the bogus list didn't prevent Sarkozy from winning the presidency in 2007. Since then, De Villepin has mostly slipped off the political radar.

That is, until this trial.

Last weekend a poll by the daily Le Figaro showed that 16% of roughly 1,000 people surveyed believed De Villepin would be the best candidate to challenge Sarkozy in the next presidential election, in 2012. No others came close to that score.

De Villepin has used his ClubVillepin website to give fist-clenching arguments in his defense.

He insists that Sarkozy's elected position disqualifies him from participating in the trial, because it would sway judges, and many politicians opposing Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement party share that view.

"The reality is that there are men who weigh more than others in this trial," said De Villepin, leaning forward from behind his desk in a Sept. 25 video posted on his website.

De Villepin's popularity rose thanks to the trial, said Isabelle Veyrat-Masson, director of the Communication and Politics Lab. "That's the paradox," she said. "He appears to be the only person on the political right who dares oppose Sarkozy."

Nevertheless, De Villepin broke with his usual easy smile and appeared concerned Tuesday after the prosecutor's recommendation against him.

Didier Rebut, a law professor at the University of Paris II, said a conviction for "actively abstaining" from informing on a crime would be rare but not impossible. In similar cases, French judges have ruled against passively letting a crime unfold, especially when the incident involved someone's professional duty to prevent it and when the inaction was to the defendant's benefit.

De Villepin and Sarkozy were both vying for the presidency at the time the list of alleged kickbacks was circulated.

If the prosecutor's recommendations are followed, De Villepin would probably not spend any time in prison and would be allowed to continue his political career. But, Rebut said, "you're stigmatized. It's serious."

On Wednesday, De Villepin's lawyers tried to debunk the prosecutor's arguments by claiming they were based on "schizophrenic," unreliable testimony by the three main witnesses and the two men accused of orchestrating the fake listing: Jean-Louis Gergorin, a former European Aeronautic Defense & Space Co. executive and De Villepin associate, and Imad Lahoud, also a former executive with the firm.

Despite the media's attention, the trial remains a complicated story to follow. It dates back over five years, involves some 40 complainants plus murky intelligence dealings with elected officials -- all of which has led to a general shrug of indifference, Veyrat-Masson said.

Either way, she said, the French think the worst of their politicians. "A common view is that all they do is stab each other in the back."

Yet the president of the Socialist Party group in the National Assembly, Jean-Marc Ayrault, fears the trial will worsen the image the French have of their leaders, and he has been a vocal critic of Sarkozy's involvement in the case.

Sarkozy "could have withdrawn his formal complaint and done that kind of magnanimous gesture that we expect from a head of state. But he didn't do it," Ayrault said in an interview Wednesday.

"It shows to what extent the hate between the two men is strong.

"It's pathetic, it's a bad performance," he said. "A bad show for democracy and for France."

--

Lauter is a special correspondent.

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