Page last updated at 13:09 GMT, Friday, 29 January 2010

Ex-PM's bitter duel with Sarkozy intensifies

Dominique de Villepin, 28 Jan 10
Mr de Villepin accused President Sarkozy of pursuing a vendetta

French prosecutors say they plan to appeal against the acquittal of former prime minister Dominique de Villepin over a plot to discredit Nicolas Sarkozy back in 2004.

But as the BBC's Emma Jane Kirby in Paris explains, staying in the media spotlight might help Mr de Villepin to stage a political comeback and challenge the president.

On Thursday Mr de Villepin was cleared of all counts after the court found no grounds to convict him of trying to sabotage his political rival's chances of becoming president.

But the public prosecutor now claims the month-long trial failed to reveal the full truth and he has asked for a retrial.

Speaking on French radio this morning Jean-Claude Marin said he had been somewhat "surprised" by the court's decision to acquit Dominique de Villepin.

He had been pushing for an 18-month suspended sentence for the former prime minister plus a hefty fine. He suggested the retrial could start by the end of this year.

Joy short-lived

Earlier, Mr de Villepin had celebrated his not guilty verdict, saying he "couldn't imagine" there would be an appeal. He appeared on France 2 television's evening news, championing the independence of the French judiciary.


Dominique de Villepin: Former PM, 55. Acquitted on charges of complicity in slander and forgery

Jean-Louis Gergorin: Former EADS vice-president, 63. Sentenced to 15 months in jail and a fine of 40,000 euros (£34,500; $56,000) for slander and use of false documents. Admitted leaking the fake list to investigators

Imad Lahoud: Computer expert, 42. Sentenced to 18 months in prison and fined 40,000 euros for slander and use of false documents. Confessed to adding Sarkozy's name to the list

Florian Bourges: Accountant, 31. Guilty of theft and breach of trust for obtaining the original Clearstream documents. Given a four-month suspended sentence.

Denis Robert: Journalist and author who broke the story, 41. Acquitted of dealing in stolen property and breach of trust

"I am proud to live in a country, in France, where the spirit of independence is still alive," he told viewers.

On Friday he reacted angrily to news of the appeal, saying it was indicative of President Sarkozy's continuing hatred and vendetta against him.

"This decision is a political decision," he claimed, "and what it shows is that Nicolas Sarkozy, president of the republic, prefers to continue in his relentlessness and hatred instead of assuming the responsibilities of his office".

The French leader seems to be seeking to distance himself from the process. He has already issued a statement saying he will not be launching an appeal on his own account.

But how very convenient, say Mr Sarkozy's opponents, that the dirt should be raked up again anyway by the public prosecutor.

Francois Goulard, a member of the ruling UMP party, but a confirmed Villepiniste, claimed to be astonished by news of the appeal.

"Nobody's duped by this, " he said on Europe 1 radio. "It's hypocrisy on the part of the head of state... and... it's simply extraordinary that for the head of state, the justice (system) is an instrument, an instrument of power."

'Order from the palace'

Jean-Pierre Grand, another open supporter of de Villepin, was even more frank.

"No one can imagine," he said, "that Marin, the prosecutor, called for an appeal without an order from the Elysee [Palace].

"This dogged pursuit of Nicolas Sarkozy against Dominique de Villepin encloses the president of the republic in a private battle which is detrimental to his presidential duties and consequently, to France."

The enmity between the two men dates back to 2004 when both were vying to replace Jacques Chirac as president.

Nicolas Sarkozy's name appeared on a list of people who allegedly took kickbacks from international arms sales. When that list proved to be false, prosecutors claim Mr de Villepin failed to stop the conspiracy, so that he might use the scandal to unseat his political rival.

On Thursday the ex-diplomat shook off five years of suspicion after being cleared of all such charges in what is dubbed the "Clearstream affair". But now it looks as though he will have to go through the whole tortuous process again.

Thorn in Sarkozy's side

So what will the appeal mean for that planned political comeback?

It is unlikely that it will result in the potential enemy within the UMP camp conveniently disappearing, leaving Mr Sarkozy unchallenged in his own party just as he was in the 2007 elections.

Dominique de Villepin will continue to be a thorn in the president's side because he has been strengthened by the Clearstream affair, appeal or no appeal.

"He could have finished up," writes Rue 89 journalist Zineb Dryef, "like [former prime ministers] Jean-Pierre Raffarin or Lionel Jospin. Forgotten, but called upon for his wisdom, trotted out on TV shows, recounting for the umpteenth time his difficult journey to reach the Matignon.... But Dominique de Villepin had Clearstream."

His support - at around 8% - may be low for now, but he has a loyal team of supporters and last night the former prime minister's website crashed under the weight of so many hits.

If the retrial does start late this year, or early next, as Jean-Claude Marin predicts, it will be at a time when the 2012 election will be much more in the minds of French people. What a fortuitous time then for a man - who has been cleared of all charges - to be pushed under the media spotlight again.

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