Page last updated at 12:01 GMT, Thursday, 28 January 2010

Murky tale behind French PM's trial

By Emma Jane Kirby
BBC News, Paris

It had all the makings of a blockbuster political thriller, but if the Clearstream case was fiction then surely any editor reviewing the manuscript would have sent it back to the author with the comments: "plot too complicated and story line a little far fetched."

File photo of Dominique de Villepin (l) and Nicolas Sarkozy (r), June 2005

The gist of the story was more or less this:

A pair of ambitious and rival ministers were fighting for a chance to win the French presidency.

The two men could not have been more different - Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, a suave ex-diplomat and poet from a high-class family who fitted perfectly into the French political elite, and then-Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, an outspoken, ambitious man with Hungarian ancestry, intent on shaking up the established system.

Mr de Villepin was the darling - the "chou chou" - of President Jacques Chirac, and his chosen successor. He was the man who charmed the United Nations with his eloquent defence of France's refusal to join the war in Iraq in 2003 with the words: "We are the guardians of an ideal, the guardians of a conscience."

Mr Sarkozy, on the other hand, was a cunning lawyer and businessman, a pro-American who has declared war on the "riff raff" and "scum" in France's downtrodden suburbs.

He was the man Mr de Villepin was known to refer to in private as "that dwarf".

Anonymous informer

So that was the background to the story, but how did it get to the chapter where, five years on, Mr de Villepin was standing trial charged with slander, falsifying documents, dealing in stolen property and breach of trust?

The Clearstream case dated back to 2001 when judges opened an investigation into the sale of French warships to Taiwan 10 years earlier.

One of the judges, Renaud Van Ruymbeke, received from a "corbeau", or an anonymous informer, a CD-ROM with a list of people who allegedly held bank accounts at a Luxembourg-based securities clearing house called Clearstream.

Mr Villepin rejected the allegations against him as 'a tissue of calumnies and ignoble lies', while for his part Mr Sarkozy filed for defamation

The informer suggested the account holders were those who had received a series of illegal kickbacks from international arms sales including those of French frigates to Taiwan.

Among the 89 top businessmen and politicians named on the list were "Nagy" and "Bosca" - the middle names of Nicolas Sarkozy, whose father was Hungarian.

When a judge concluded the listings were false, the focus of the investigation quickly became who was behind the spurious allegations.

Magistrates wanted to know whether that person was Mr de Villepin, trying to conduct a smear campaign against Mr Sarkozy to spoil his chances of winning the 2007 election.

Mr de Villepin rejected the allegations against him as "a tissue of calumnies and ignoble lies" while, for his part, Mr Sarkozy filed for defamation.

A court has now sided with Mr de Villepin, ruling that he had no part in the conspiracy.

But, as the court unravelled the tangled web of insinuation and ulterior motives, it emerged that others did.

Three of those on trial were convicted.

Boardroom struggle

Part of the intention of drawing up this elaborate forgery seems to have been to discredit senior figures in the aerospace group EADS, to influence the outcome of a boardroom leadership struggle.

In 2006, the former vice-president of EADS Jean Louis Gergorin admitted that he gave the list, which also included his boss Philippe Delmas, to judicial authorities - but he also claimed he was acting on orders from Mr de Villepin and President Chirac.

File photo of then EADS vice-president Jean-Louis Gergorin
Jean-Louis Gergorin admits giving a list of names to prosecutors

It is certainly true that Mr de Villepin had called a meeting in the first weeks of 2004 to discuss the undeclared bank accounts at Clearstream and had asked a senior intelligence figure, General Philippe Rondot, to investigate.

Mr de Villepin admits calling the meeting because he says, as foreign minister at the time, he feared Clearstream posed a threat to "national security".

But while Mr de Villepin was acquitted, Gergorin was convicted.

So was Imad Lahoud, a computer expert, who admitted faking Clearstream accounts on Gergorin's behalf.

The third man convicted was the accountant Florian Bourges, who obtained data on account holders that were later falsified.

If Clearstream really were a political thriller, editors would have demanded that the intricate plot be substantially thinned.

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