De Villepin cleared of bid to smear rival Sarkozy
Victory paves way for challenge to president
Dominique de Villepin, the former French prime minister, was cleared yesterday of charges that he plotted to smear Nicolas Sarkozy and scupper his campaign for the presidency in 2007.
The verdict was a blow to Mr Sarkozy, a civil plaintiff in the case, whose enmity towards Mr de Villepin is legendary. The president told aides during the investigation: "When I shoot, it's to kill, not to wound."
The acquittal revived Mr de Villepin's political ambitions, turning him into a dangerous contender for the presidency in 2012.
The case centred on a bogus list of account holders at a financial clearing house in Luxembourg who allegedly took bribes from the sale of French warships to Taiwan. Mr Sarkozy, one of 39 plaintiffs, had reportedly promised to "hang on a butcher's hook" whoever had tried to discredit him by adding his name to the list and sending it to an investigating magistrate in 2004. At the time, he and Mr de Villepin were locked in a vicious battle to succeed Jacques Chirac as president.
One of five defendants, Mr de Villepin had faced a five-year prison term and e45,000 fine for complicity to slander, complicity to use forgeries, dealing in stolen property and breach of trust. But in the ruling read out to a Paris courtroom, the judge said that while Mr de Villepin had handled the bogus list, there was no proof he knew it was falsified nor that he had sought to discredit Mr Sarkozy.
During the trial, the tall, silver-haired minister portrayed himself as the victim of an "obsessive" vendetta by Mr Sarkozy, who he called "the dwarf".
But, on Thursday, he opted for magnanimity. "After several years of ordeal, my innocence has been recognised," he said. "I don't bear any grudges or rancour. I want to turn the page ... to serve the French people."
Three other defendants were convicted: Jean-Louis Gergorin, an aerospace executive who admitted to leaking the fake list to investigators; Imad Lahoud, a computer expert who added Mr Sarkozy's name to the list; and Florian Bourges, an accountant who obtained data on account holders that were later falsified. (© Daily Telegraph, London)