Setback for Sarkozy as arch rival cleared over smear plot
NICOLAS Sarkozy faces a fresh headache in his bid for re-election after his arch rival Dominique de Villepin was definitively acquitted yesterday of seeking to smear him.
The public prosecutor had called for Jacques Chirac's former prime minister, who led France's opposition to the war in Iraq, to be given a 15-month suspended sentence in the so-called Clearstream scandal.
That would have ended his hopes to take on Mr Sarkozy in next April's presidential elections at the helm of the Republique Solidaire party he founded last year.
Mr Sarkozy, a civil plaintiff in the original trial, reportedly swore to "hang on a butcher's hook" whoever tried to discredit him by placing his name on a falsified list of Luxembourg bank accounts wrongly linked to money laundering.
Prosecutors had considered that while Mr Villepin did not initiate the conspiracy to smear Mr Sarkozy, he was an "accomplice by abstention" as he failed to do anything to stop the plot.
But a French appeals court upheld last year's acquittal on charges of complicity in slander, paving the way for the former diplomat to become a potentially damaging nuisance to Mr Sarkozy, whose approval ratings are at record lows. Neither man has officially launched his campaign.
"I want to salute the independence of our judiciary which has held out against political pressure," an emotional Mr Villepin said after the verdict.
"I would like all this to be a lesson for the 2012 presidential election," he added in reference to allegations over the weekend that he and Mr Chirac, his former mentor, received $20m (€15m) in cash stuffed into briefcases from African leaders, mainly to fund elections.
Mr Villepin and Mr Chirac both indicated that they plan to file defamation complaints.
Polls suggest that Mr Villepin would muster only 2-4pc of the vote if he ran for president. But Mr Sarkozy's election chances recede with every right-winger who enters the race. He faces a challenge from at least two other centre-right contenders as well as the far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
Mr Sarkozy is threatened by a series of potentially explosive sleaze scandals.
On Monday, his name was thrown into the mix by a former Chirac ally as being a beneficiary of African leaders' cash, while the former bookkeeper of the L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt was questioned yesterday over claims that she withdrew €150,000 destined to fund Mr Sarkozy's 2007 presidential campaign.
Another judge yesterday placed under official investigation Ziad Takieddine, an arms deal middle man, who faces allegations he paid illegal kickbacks to former prime minister Edouard Balladur at Mr Sarkozy's behest.
Mr Sarkozy and the Elysee have denied the allegations.
Meanwhile, the Socialists have been buoyed by polls suggesting that their two front-running hopefuls, Francois Hollande and Martine Aubry, would trounce Mr Sarkozy should he reach round two. (© Daily Telegraph, London)