A trial in Paris will illuminate the murky
workings of French politics
THE courtroom doors opened on Monday
September 21st for the start of a judicial drama
that is set to expose the murky dealings at
the heart of French political power.
On paper, the "Clearstream trial", as the court case
is known, concerns five suspects accused of involvement
in a smear campaign, and some 40 civil plaintiffs,
whose names were linked to fake bank accounts
supposedly holding the proceeds of kickbacks
on an arms deal.
Politically, however, the trial is a duel between
two ambitious politicians, once rivals
for power: one, Nicolas Sarkozy, is now president,
and the other, Dominique de Villepin,
is a former prime minister who was
once his chief challenger for the job.
The case dates back to a judicial investigation,
launched in 2001, into kickbacks linked to the sale
of French frigates to Taiwan in the early 1990s.
In 2004, investigating judges received anonymously
a list of foreign bank accounts, subsequently found
to be fake, that fingered various French personalities.
They include Mr Sarkozy, then interior minister under
President Jacques Chirac, Dominique Strauss-Kahn,
then a Socialist Party notable and now head of the IMF
in Washington. Others from across the political spectrum
included such people as Jean-Pierre Chevènement,
another left-winger, Alain Madelin, a liberal former
finance minister, and Brice Hortefeux,
the current interior minister.
When the judge ruled the list bogus, a fresh investigation
began into the false accusations. Investigative judges
have spent years raiding premises,
confiscating documents, decrypting computer files
and interrogating witnesses, including
two top French former spymasters.
Besides Mr de Villepin, the judges have also put
in the dock Jean-Louis Gergorin,
a former executive at the European Aeronautic
Defence and Space company (EADS),
and Imad Lahoud, an EADS computer whiz
and sometime intelligence operative himself.
For Mr Sarkozy, the affair is proof of a plot
at the highest level to discredit him
and thwart his chances of becoming
president in 2007.
It is easy to forget that, at the time,
the two men were seen to be part of
an evenly matched contest.
Mr de Villepin, who became Mr Sarkozy's boss
when named prime minister in 2005,
was Mr Chirac's right-hand man for years.
Elegant, aristocratic, lyrical, having made
his name as the poster boy for those opposed
to the Iraq war, he was Mr Chirac's preferred heir.
As his former chief-of-staff at the Elysée palace,
Mr de Villepin also honed the more opaque arts
of political kingmaking.
He is accused of "complicity in false accusation,
complicity in the use of forgeries,
receipt of stolen goods, and breach of trust".
Appearing in court on Monday for the first day
of the trial, in the courtroom where
Marie-Antoinette was sent to the guillotine in 1793,
Mr de Villepin declared: "I am here because of
the doggedness of one man, Nicolas Sarkozy."
He insisted that he would emerge "free and cleared"
at the end.
Mr de Villepin has repeatedly complained of
political manipulation of the judicial process,
and of a personal "lynching" by the media.
He admits having asked a top intelligence boss
to look into the list of names but, he claims,
let the matter drop once he learned
that the list was bogus.
During the next four weeks, evidence that
has leaked out into the press over the years
from France's sieve-like investigation process
will finally be put firmly in the public domain.
It will cast light on the inner workings of not just
French political power, but also
the intelligence services and the defence industry.
Mr Sarkozy himself will not be asked to testify,
as he enjoys judicial immunity while in office.
Mr de Villepin could, in theory, face up
to five years in prison.
In any event, the trial will determine whether
he has a political future.
And it will supply an extraordinary glimpse into
the backroom manoeuvrings of the French establishment.
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