PARIS — Former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin went on trial Monday, accused of conspiring to smear Nicolas Sarkozy in 2004 and wreck his chances of becoming president.
The trial, expected to run for a month, will focus on the biggest political scandal France has seen in years -- a murky story featuring forged documents, spies and bitter enmities.
The so-called Clearstream affair nearly destroyed the center-right government of then-President Jacques Chirac, in which the former diplomat De Villepin and the blunt-spoken outsider Sarkozy were rival ministers.
De Villepin is accused of trying to have forged documents planted in a judicial corruption investigation with the aim of discrediting Sarkozy as the two maneuvered to succeed the aging Chirac in the 2007 presidential election.
He denies any wrongdoing and says he is the victim of injustice. He accuses Sarkozy of being obsessed with the case, and argues that the president's involvement in the trial as a civil plaintiff has distorted proceedings.
"I am here because of one man's decision and one man's obsession," De Villepin said as he arrived at the courthouse with his wife and three children. "I will emerge free and with my name cleared."
If found guilty, De Villepin, who won global fame in 2003 with an impassioned speech at the United Nations against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, could face up to five years in prison and a fine of more than $60,000.
He is charged with "complicity in defamation and the use of forged documents and possession of goods obtained by breach of trust and theft."
The Clearstream affair surfaced in 2004, when a judge investigating a corruption case linked to an arms deal with Taiwan was sent documents by an anonymous informant implicating a host of prominent people, including Sarkozy.
The documents included a huge list of accounts, purportedly held at the Luxembourg-based financial institution Clearstream, with the suggestion that they were linked to Taiwan, as well as criminal groups including the Russian mafia.
The documents were quickly unmasked as fake and the investigation switched to determining who was behind them.