Former French PM faces smear accusations

John Lichfield
Sunday 06 September 2009 18:36 BST
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The former French prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, was the leading figure in a “cabal” which tried to smear Nicolas Sarkozy in 2004 to destroy his chances of becoming president, a French investigative judge has been told.

The accusation, by another key player in the alleged conspiracy, threatens to complicate, and possibly even derail, France’s “trial of the century” which is due to begin in Paris two weeks tomorrow.

Mr de Villepin, prime minister from 2005-7, is due to stand trial, alongside four other people, accused of “complicity” in calumny and forgery in the tangled and murky Clearstream Affair. It emerged at the weekend, however, that an investigative judge had been given sworn testimony accusing Mr de Villepin of being not just “complicit” but the leading figure in a clumsy attempt to destroy M. Sarkozy as a “danger to France”.

Mr de Villepin’s lawyer, Olivier Metzner, dismissed these allegations yesterday but also complained that the statement, made nine months ago, had been wrongly withheld from defence lawyers. He suggested that he now had grounds to delay, or even prevent, the trial.

The “Clearstream Affair” already reads like the plot of a political thriller. There is no precedent in French history for an ex-Prime Minister going on trial accused of trying to wreck the career of a political colleague and rival.

The affair concerns not so much sex, lies and videotape as political ambition, lies and CD-roms. In May 2004, an investigating judge received an anonymous letter and then a CD-rom containing lists of allegedly undeclared bank accounts managed by the Clearstream International Bank in Luxembourg. Among the thinly disguised references to senior French business and political figures were the names “Nagy” and “Bocsa”, which form part of Mr Sarkozy’s full surname.

A brief investigation by the judge revealed that the lists had been faked. Real bank records, previously leaked to an investigative journalist, had been altered, introducing new names.

At the time of the alleged smear, Mr Sarkozy had already emerged as the likely next leader of the French centre right. His ambitions were resented by his former mentor, President Jacques Chirac, who still hoped to run for a third term. Mr de Villepin, who detested Mr Sarkozy and referred to him privately as “the dwarf”, also harboured presidential ambitions of his own.

According to the former Prime Minister’s version of events, he was first shown the CD-ROM by a friend and former colleague, Jean-Louis Gergorin, then a senior official in the Airbus company, EADS. Mr de Villepin says that he asked for an investigation by the security services but made no attempt to single out or smear M. Sarkozy. .

Mr Gergorin, who is also due to go on trail on 21 September, says that he accepted the CD-ROM , in good faith, from another Airbus official, Imad Lahoud, a computer expert and mathematician.

Mr Lahoud, who is also to go on trial, has made a series of confusing declarations about the affair. It emerged at the weekend that he had made another, previously undisclosed, statement on oath nine months ago to a judge who was investigating a different aspect of the Clearstream scandal.

In this statement, leaked to the Journal du Dimanche yesrterday, Mr Lahoud said that he had faked the CD-Rom to include, amongst other things, the reference to Mr Sarkozy. He said that he had done so, at the request of Mr Gergorin, who was part of a “cabal” who regarded M. Sarkozy as a man who was “dangerous for France and must, at all costs, be stopped”.

“I knew that Jean-Louis Gergorin was in contact with Dominique de Villepin and the cabal against Nicolas Sarkozy had been created with Dominique de Villepin’s knowledge,” he said.

The judges investigating the affair have found no evidence that Mr de Villepin inspired the faked CD.. They concluded, however, that the former Prime Minister had been “complicit” in trying to use them against Mr Sarkozy after he knew that they were false. Mr Lahoud’s statement suggests that Mr de Villepin was involved from the very beginning.

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