Behind the scenes

From Economist.com

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.

Link here

             J-L K.
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