- The Washington Times - Monday, September 21, 2009

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story did not identify Jean-Louis Gergorin as vice-president of EADS.

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PARIS | Former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin goes on trial Monday on charges of trying to use a bogus list of secret bank-account holders to smear President Nicolas Sarkozy at a time when the two were political archrivals.

The trial promises to be a potboiler of the first order, with a cast of characters and a witness list that include senior intelligence officers, journalists, past and present ministers, a leading defense contractor and a bookish computer hacker who is also a self-proclaimed spy.

Mr. de Villepin, a debonair former diplomat and Napoleon Bonaparte buff, is best known outside France for his dramatic speeches at the United Nations against the invasion of Iraq. His surprise announcement of French opposition in early 2003 was labeled an “ambush” by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

The case revolves around documents that were stolen eight years ago from the Luxembourg financial clearing house, Clearstream, containing a list of accounts purportedly used to launder money.

The list ended up in the hands of a senior executive at EADS, the giant French manufacturer of combat aircraft and Airbus passenger planes, and he passed it to his friend, Mr. de Villepin.

Along the way, according to prosecutors, an EADS employee doctored the list by adding the names of Mr. Sarkozy and at least 40 other prominent business and political figures. Mr. de Villepin is accused of allowing the tampered list to leak and circulate despite his knowledge that it was a fake. He faces up to five years in prison.

Jean-Claude Marin, the chief Paris prosecutor, called the case a “complex operation of extraordinary scope” and Mr. de Villepin its chief “collateral beneficiary.”

Mr. Sarkozy will not be present but will have his lawyers at the trial of his old nemesis. He filed a slander lawsuit in 2006, when the fakery became public, making him a civil plaintiff in the proceedings.

Slander lawsuits have also been filed by 40 other French business and political figures across the political spectrum whose names appeared on the forged list of account holders.

Among them is Dominique Strauss-Kahn, at the time a potential Socialist contender for the French presidency who is now the managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

The Clearstream trial, sometimes described as the French Watergate, promises to replay the vicious infighting that characterized the last years in office of President Jacques Chirac, when Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. de Villepin were ministers and angling to succeed him.

The two men rose in politics by different paths. Mr. de Villepin, who has never run for office, was a Chirac protege, the son of a French senator and a graduate of the country’s elite schools.

Mr. Sarkozy, a lawyer and the son of a Hungarian immigrant, is a scrappy political infighter who won his first elective office at age 23 and portrays himself as the counter-elite.

“It is high time that we get rid of all these schemers once and for all,” he said last month, when asked about the Clearstream case. “These little groups of plotters, we’ve had too many of them and this is an opportunity to show that no one will be their victim again.”

Over the past few weeks, Mr. de Villepin has tried to turn the tables, complaining in a succession of television appearances and interviews that he cannot get a fair trial with the president as a plaintiff in the case.

It may have been in Mr. de Villepin’s interest to see his rival discredited by the forged Clearstream list, said Alain Genestar, a political commentator and former editor of the magazine Paris Match. But it was also in the president’s interest, he added, to see the forgery blown up into a full-scale criminal case.

“You always ask, ‘Who benefits from the crime?’ And for most people, looking back over the case, there are two guilty parties,” Mr. Genestar said. “Clearstream is not a state scandal but a farce, one that has only become a major affair because of its cast of characters.”

The trial, which is expected to last four weeks, will largely center on who knew about the fake list, when they knew it and when Mr. de Villepin informed them about it. But there may be diversions.

During the course of the inquiry, investigators seized the diaries of the former domestic spy chief, Yves Bertrand. They were leaked to the press and could figure, explosively, in the trial. Extracts included descriptions of the sexual habits and medical histories of prominent French politicians and their families, including Mr. Sarkozy and his ex-wife.

In addition to Mr. de Villepin, four other men are also charged in the case, including Jean-Louis Gergorin, the EADS vice-president who gave him the list of Clearstream accounts. He has been described by friends and colleagues as fixated on conspiracy theories. He has said he had the list because he was conducting his own investigation into money-laundering and the Russian Mafia.

Leaked reports of pretrial testimony described the machinations around Clearstream as an intrigue worthy of a spy thriller, with Mr. Gergorin using code names, holding meetings in a park and slipping into Mr. de Villepin’s office by the back door.

Imad Lahoud, an EADS computer specialist hired by Mr. Gergorin, is charged with having altered the Clearstream list. He has published a book, called “Le Coupable Ideal,” or the “Ideal Fall-Guy,” in which he described working secretly for the French intelligence service, supposedly tracing Osama bin Laden’s financial transactions.

Also listed as defendants are Florian Bourges, accused of stealing the Clearstream list, and journalist Denis Robert, who broke the story.

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