ALBERT HERTER

‘NEW TRIAL SOUGHT FOR FRENCH EX-PREMIER,’ in the New York Times.

In Uncategorized on January 29, 2010 at 14:21

By STEVEN ERLANGER and ALAN COWELL

Published: January 29, 2010

PARIS — A new political battle loomed on Friday between President Nicolas Sarkozy and the former prime minister, Dominique de Villepin after a Paris court acquitted Mr. de Villepin on charges that he was part of a 2004 conspiracy to tarnish Mr. Sarkozy’s reputation.

Immediately after the verdict on Thursday, the president said that he would not appeal against it. But on Friday, the Paris prosecutor announced that he would seek a new trial. “I have decided to file an appeal against this decision,” Jean-Claude Marin said on Europe 1 radio. “Whatever happens, there will be a second trial.”

In a television interview, Mr. de Villepin said the prosecutor’s decision showed the president was pursuing a political vendetta. “What this decision shows is that one man, Nicolas Sarkozy, wants to persevere in his determination, in his hate,” he told BFM television.

Mr. Sarkozy, who won the presidency in 2007, was a plaintiff in the deeply political trial, known as “Clearstream,” which both confused and captivated France. The case had raised issues of class, culture and power, and Mr. Sarkozy made no secret of his hostility toward Mr. de Villepin.

The verdict found no wrongdoing by Mr. de Villepin, even though prosecutors had asked the court to convict him of complicity in slander, forgery, use of stolen property and breach of trust. The case turned on the use of forged documents to try to defame Mr. Sarkozy and others by linking them to secret accounts supposedly containing kickbacks from arms sales to Taiwan.

Three other men were found guilty of various charges, but the prosecution’s case — that Mr. de Villepin failed to stop the conspiracy to defame Mr. Sarkozy — found little favor with the court, which declined to even admonish Mr. de Villepin, who is now free to resume his political career and challenge Mr. Sarkozy for the presidency in 2012.

Mr. de Villepin, who has already started a political club and social network, may well divide the right, weaken Mr. Sarkozy and erode the sense of inevitability around his re-election.

“The verdict is very important because for three years, Sarkozy argued that he was fighting a political plot against him, and the court said there was no plot,” said Christophe Barbier, editor of the weekly L’Express. “Sarkozy wants to be the only candidate of the right in 2012, but if de Villepin now becomes a candidate, he has no chance to win, but he can weaken Sarkozy and make victory difficult.”

After the verdict, which was delivered in the courtroom in which Marie Antoinette was sentenced to the guillotine, Mr. de Villepin, 56, said: “I have no rancor, no resentment. I want to turn the page.” He called the verdict “a victory of justice and the law over politics.

There were about 40 plaintiffs, but Mr. de Villepin has said he believes that Mr. Sarkozy was behind the case, trying to use the power of the presidency for political ends. At the beginning of the trial last year, Mr. de Villepin said he was in the dock “because of the relentlessness of one man, Nicolas Sarkozy,” whom he has previously referred to as “that dwarf.”

In 2004, Mr. de Villepin, who has written books of declamatory poetry, told Le Point that “Nicolas doesn’t have the makings of a man of state, because he has no interior labyrinth” and lacks “the mystery that is the strength of great men.”

The two men were ministers under President Jacques Chirac, who favored Mr. de Villepin, but Mr. Sarkozy proved the better politician.

Mr. Sarkozy not only was a plaintiff, but during the trial, he also branded the defendants guilty, which his opponents called a further violation of his responsibility as president to be above the law.

He vowed revenge in 2005, saying he would hang those responsible “on a butcher’s hook.” But as Mr. Barbier said, “If the case was the revenge of Sarkozy, it may also be the beginning of the revenge of de Villepin.”

In a statement, Mr. Sarkozy, who turned 55 on Thursday, said he had taken note of the verdict, which recognized “a serious conspiracy,” and would not appeal.

The verdict was a surprise, but the court accepted Mr. de Villepin’s insistence that he did not know the list of accounts in a Luxembourg-based institution called Clearstream was fraudulent, rejecting the prosecution’s allegation that Mr. de Villepin knew of the forgery but did nothing to stop the plot. The prosecution had asked for an 18-month suspended sentence and a fine of about $65,000.

Socialist leaders reacted with some glee. A Socialist legislator, Arnaud Montebourg, said that Mr. Sarkozy “instrumentalized justice to settle scores” and that the verdict “is proof that Sarkozy used justice to try to eliminate a political rival.”

The court convicted three other defendants. A former aerospace executive, Jean-Louis Gergorin, was sentenced to three years in prison, with 21 months suspended, and fined about $56,000. Mr. Gergorin passed on the accounts to judicial authorities on the orders, he said, of Mr. de Villepin and Mr. Chirac. Imad Lahoud, accused of falsifying the list of accounts on the orders of Mr. Gergorin, was also sentenced to three years, with 18 months suspended and a fine of $56,000. Florian Bourges, an accountant, was given a four-month suspended sentence, while the journalist Denis Robert, accused of passing on the list, was acquitted.

Those convicted are expected to appeal.

Last October, Mr. de Villepin said he wanted to embody “a republican alternative” for 2012. Last week, he held a political event in Bondy, a Paris suburb, a flashpoint of the 2005 riots and an area where Mr. Sarkozy is deeply unpopular.

According to a poll conducted last November by IFOP, a French polling organization, on voting intentions for the 2012 presidential elections, 8 percent of French voters said they would favor Mr. de Villepin in the first round. Even against a divided Socialist Party, that would be enough to deny Mr. Sarkozy victory in the first round, especially if a candidate runs from the far-right National Front.

Maïa de La Baume contributed reporting.

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