In a court judgment with explosive implications for French politics, the former prime minister Dominique de Villepin was cleared yesterday of smearing Nicolas Sarkozy in an effort to destroy his colleague and rival's rise to the presidency.
Mr Villepin immediately made it clear that he planned to use his acquittal as a springboard to challenge for Mr Sarkozy's job in 2012, saying: "I now turn to the future to serve the French people and to contribute, in a new spirit of unity, to the recovery of France."
The delayed judgement in France's political "trial of the century" was a stinging defeat for President Sarkozy. He once threatened to "hang on a butcher's hook" those alleged to have spread false accusations of corruption against him in 2003-4, when he was the interior minister.
In 2004, Mr Sarkozy's name appeared on a list of politicians and businessmen who were wrongly linked to an illegal bank account in Luxembourg. It was alleged that those on the list received bribes from international arms sales. The list was sent to people including Mr De Villepin, who was accused of failing to stop the conspiracy.
After a one-month trial last autumn, the judges convicted and jailed two men, including a friend of Mr Villepin, for faking the lists of bank accounts. Mr Villepin – who was Mr Sarkozy's ministerial colleague at the time – was accused of "complicity in calumny" because he allowed the lists to be leaked to an investigating magistrate.
The court decided that, although Mr Villepin's behaviour was often suspect, there was no absolute proof that he knew the listings were faked or that he ordered, or passively allowed, them to be leaked. In a churlish statement as "civil party" in the trial, Mr Sarkozy said afterwards that he "noted" the judgement but drew attention to the "severity" of some of the court's comments about Mr Villepin's behaviour.
"The court decided that the role of Dominique de Villepin in this manipulation could not be proved," he added.
During the trial, Mr Villepin, 56, insisted that the case was politically motivated. Far from having tried to destroy his ambitious colleague's career, he said, he became the target of "a determined campaign" of vilification by "the highest levels of the state".
Mr Villepin's argument was inadvertently strengthened by President Sarkozy himself. He referred to all the defendants just before the trial as les coupables – the guilty men.
The patrician Mr Villepin is said to believe that Mr Sarkozy, whom he privately calls "the dwarf", is an uncultured upstart who is dangerous and divisive for France. The former prime minister has never stood for elected office but regards himself as the true heir of the "one nation", conservative-statist traditions of Gaullism and Chiraquism.
He has already set up a "Club Villepin" and is expected to use his legal victory as a launch-pad to challenge Mr Sarkozy in 2012. Although Mr Villepin is unlikely to win, it could awaken the slumbering hatreds within the French centre-right and help to smooth the path for a centre-left challenger for the presidency.
Yesterday's court rulings, recorded in a 300-page judgment, did little to elucidate the tangled and murky "Clearstream affair" (named after the Luxembourg bank whose records were falsified). The judges decided that the main culprit was Jean-Louis Gergorin, 63, a friend and former boss of Mr Villepin and a former senior executive at the aerospace group EADS – the parent company of Airbus.
Gergorin was jailed for 15 months after being convicted of forgery, using forgeries and "calumnous denunciation". It was suggested that he originally tried to circulate the faked bank accounts as part of a power struggle within EADS – a claim he denied.
Another defendant, Imad Lahoud, 42, a computer expert and occasional, low-level espionage operative who actually faked the bank listings was found guilty of forgery and "complicity in calumny", jailed for three months and fined €40,000 (£34,600).
What remains unexplained, after Mr Villepin's acquittal, is why Mr Sarkozy's name suddenly appeared among scores of false Clearstream clients. Originally, the lists contained random names from the business, political and entertainment worlds, including senior figures at Airbus. Mr Sarkozy's name - or rather part of his full Hungarian surname "Nagy" and "Bocsa" – appeared in a new version of the lists in late 2003. Why Gergorin should have decided, single-handedly, to smear a rising force within the centre-right remains unclear. The listings were first shown by Gergorin to Mr Villepin, then foreign minister, in January 2004.
In its judgment, the court said Mr Villepin evidently discussed the affair with Jacques Chirac, the then President, and showed special interest in the Sarkozy listings. However, Mr Villepin had denied these accusations.Reuse content