Prosecutor accused of bias after Villepin cleared

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Hollywood is not alone in loving repeats: France faces a “Trial of the Century II”. The Paris public prosecutor was accused today of “persecution” and “political bias” after he appealed against the acquittal of former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin on charges of smearing President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The decision by Jean-Claude Morin, who insisted that he had not received any orders from the Elysée Palace, means that there will be a second, potentially explosive trial on the tangled “Clearstream affair” at the end of this year or early in 2011.

Mr Villepin, 56, long Mr Sarkozy’s colleague and hated rival, was cleared yesterday of helping to spread false allegations in 2004 that the future president had undeclared bank accounts managed by Clearstream International bank in Luxembourg. Three other men, including a friend of Mr Villepin, were convicted of various degrees of responsibility in leaking, and faking, the accounts.

The Paris public prosecutor, Mr Morin, said that he had decided to appeal because the “full truth” of the Clearstream scandal had not been revealed by yesterday’s ruling. “I had no need to take orders from anyone,” he said.

Politicians on the left – and Mr Villepin himself – cried foul and insisted that the decision showed that President Sarkozy was pursuing a “vendetta” against his former ministerial colleague.

If so, forcing a second trial is a high-stakes political gamble. If Mr Villepin is cleared a second time, he will be established in public opinion as the “victim”, and Mr Sarkozy as the “villain”, in the murky waters of the Clearstream affair.

Mr Villepin is expected to run against President Sarkozy in 2012, possibly splitting the Right and allowing a left-wing victory. If he is convicted in a second trial, he may – or may not - be formally disqualified from seeking electoral office for several years.

The former prime minister said today: “The (decision to appeal) shows that one man, Nicolas Sarkozy, the President of the Republic, prefers to pursue his campaign of persecution and his hatred, rather than uphold his responsibilities as the guarantor of the French justice system.”