Appeals court clears de Villepin of smear charges

Thu, Sep 15, 2011, 01:00

A FRENCH appeals court has cleared former prime minister Dominique de Villepin of being involved in a smear campaign against President Nicolas Sarkozy in the run-up to the 2007 election.

The acquittal brings the six-year Clearstream legal battle to an end and opens the door for Mr de Villepin to challenge Mr Sarkozy in the 2012 election.

The Clearstream affair, a saga involving secret agents, forgery and layers of political intrigue, marked the nadir in relations between the two rivals – both one-time proteges of former president Jacques Chirac. Mr de Villepin left Mr Sarkozy’s UMP party last year and set up his own political group, République Solidaire.

“I’ve come out of this test even stronger than before, and even more determined to serve my fellow Frenchmen,” Mr de Villepin said after emerging from court smiling broadly yesterday.

The former prime minister would have little chance of winning the presidency, but by standing he could eat into Mr Sarkozy’s centre-right vote and deal a blow to his chances of a second round play-off.

Mr de Villepin welcomed the verdict and portrayed himself as the victim of a vendetta. “After six years of unprecedented, relentless pursuit, after six testing years for my family, the justice system has recognised, for the second time, my innocence,” he said. “I want to salute the independence of our justice system, which has been able to resist political pressure.”

UMP officials discount Mr de Villepin’s chances of contesting the 2012 election, saying he lacks funds and political support, but in a hint of the party’s concern over his plans, party leader Jean-François Copé said yesterday his door was “wide open” to the former prime minister.

“Our family, in its widest sense, must be united . . . to work together for our country, because the problems we face are sufficiently serious for us to join forces,” he said.

The Clearstream case centred on a forged list of names, made public ahead of the 2007 presidential election, which falsely linked Mr Sarkozy to a corruption probe relating to secret Luxembourg bank accounts.

Mr de Villepin, prime minister from 2005 to 2007, was accused of doing nothing to stop rumours about the list even though he knew it was fake.

Along with Mr Chirac, he was separately accused this week by the Franco-Lebanese lawyer Robert Bourgi of having received large sums of cash from African leaders – claims both men strongly deny. He alluded to the claims yesterday, saying that just as the Clearstream affair was initiated in 2005-06, the eve of the 2007 presidential election, the Bourgi claims emerged just seven months before the 2012 election. “I would like to think that [the court’s] decision will contribute towards making our country less vulnerable to rumour and slander,” he added.