Sarkozy and de Villepin square up in sleaze case

Allegations and counter-allegations about offshore funds come before court after years of toxic gossip
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The Independent Online

In the court-room where Queen Marie Antoinette was condemned to death two centuries ago, the former French prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, will appear today accused of spreading faked evidence of corruption against his political colleague, and detested rival, President Nicolas Sarkozy.

After five years of trial by leak and counter-leak, the misnamed "Clearstream" affair – more a murky ditch of hatred, manipulation and mutual back-stabbing at the highest levels of the French state – will finally come to court over the next four weeks.

There is no precedent in recent French history for a trial with such an impressive dramatis personae.

The defendants will include the tall, handsome poet and former prime minister, who was president Jacques Chirac's right hand man for a decade and outraged the Bush administration in 2003 with an eloquent UN assault on the case for war in Iraq. Other defendants include a former senior executive of the Airbus company, an enigmatic Lebanese computer expert, a trainee accountant and a left-wing investigative journalist.

The 40 civil plaintiffs include Mr Sarkozy, who once swore that he would hunt down those responsible for trying to smear him in 2004 "and hang them on a butcher's hook".

Witnesses will include another former prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the present Minister of Justice, Michèlle Alliot-Marie, and a clutch of French intelligence chiefs and former intelligence chiefs.

Mr de Villepin's lawyers will, from the first, suggest that the hearing in the Palais de Justice in Paris is a "political show trial", worthy of the "Golden Chamber" in which Marie-Antoinette was condemned to the guillotine in 1795. They will claim today that Mo Sarkozy has exerted undue influence on the state prosecution service to bring his former – and possible future – rival to trial. They will ask the judges to rule that Mr Sarkozy, as the ultimate guarantor of the French justice system, should not be allowed to act as a civil plaintiff in a criminal case.

Although Mr de Villepin's lawyers are unlikely to succeed, their pleas will set the tone for much of what follows over the next month. Whether Mr de Villepin is convicted or not, Mr Sarkozy has much to lose if the French public decides that the prosecution was politically driven.

The basic facts of the case are simple. The tangle of apparent and hidden motives and mutual accusations is seemingly impenetrable.

In late 2003, computer listings of secret and illegal accounts, allegedly managed in off-shore banks by the Clearstream International bank in Luxembourg, were brought to the attention of the French security services. The names on the accounts ranged from right and left-wing politicians, to senior executives in Airbus and entertainment celebrities such as the actress Laetitia Casta.

By the time the listings were sent anonymously to an investigate judge in 2004, they also included two accounts apparently held in a small Italian bank under the names "Nagy" and "Bocsa". These names form part of the full Hungarian aristocratic surname of Nicolas Sarkozy.

At that time, Mr Sarkozy was already campaigning openly to succeed Mr Chirac as the leader of the French centre-right. Mr Chirac and Mr de Villepin, then foreign minister, were campaigning to derail him. Mr de Villepin was especially vituperative in private about his ambitious centre-right colleague, calling him "le nain" (the dwarf) and insisting that he would be disastrous for France.

The French security services rapidly concluded that the computer listings had been faked. The bank accounts were real but the computer records had been altered to show false names. Nonetheless, repeated attempts were made in 2004 to bring the faked listings, including the "Sarkozy accounts", to the attention of an investigative judge and, finally, in September of that year, to the press.

An investigation by two judges established that genuine Clearstream account listings had originally been leaked in 2001 to a left-wing investigative journalist, Denis Robert, by a trainee accountant, Florian Bourges.

It is alleged that these listings were handed on to a Lebanese computer expert, Imad Lahoud, who worked for the Airbus company. He is accused of introducing scores of false names into the Clearstream lists. He claims that he did so at the request of Jean-Louis Gergorin, a vice-president of Eads, the company that owns Airbus. After changing his testimony several times, Mr Lahoud also alleges that Mr de Villepin later ordered him to introduce the "Sarkozy" names into the accounts.

In early 2004, after the security services declared the lists to be fake, Mr Gergorin took them to Mr de Villepin – an old friend, who was then foreign minister. A retired intelligence chief, General Phillippe Rondot, was asked by Mr de Villepin to investigate. Both Mr Gergorin and Mr Rondot say that Mr De Villepin was excited by, and obsessed with, the references to Mr Sarkozy.

General Rondot also concluded that the listings were false. Nonetheless, it is alleged, in May 2004, Mr de Villepin ordered Mr Gergorin to leak the information to an investigative judge, assuming that they would also leak to the press.

The prosecution case against Mr de Villepin is that he did everything in his power to spread the false information about the future president, knowing it to be false. The case against Mr Lahoud and Mr Gergorin is that they faked, and circulated, the lists as part of a power struggle within Airbus.

Mr de Villepin's counter-claim against Mr Sarkozy is that he manipulated the Clearstream affair to pose as political victim and help his presidential campaign.

The Golden Chamber: 16th-century justice

*The Clearstream trial will take place in the the Grande Chambre, or Chambre Dorée (Golden Chamber) of the Palais de Justice, on the Ile de Cité, beside Notre Dame cathedral.

*It was in this room that the Revolutionary Tribunal sat in 1795 and sent hundreds of alleged traitors to the guillotine, including Queen Marie-Antoinette, the "widow Capet".

*The oak panelling and chandeliers of the present chamber are not original. The room was restored, in 16th-century style, after a fire in 1871.