De Villepin denies plot to smear Sarkozy

Former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin entered the witness box in a slander trial today to deny orchestrating a plot to discredit President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Calmly and methodically, Mr de Villepin, famed for a 2003 speech at the United Nations arguing against the invasion of Iraq, laid out his defence in what the French have dubbed the Clearstream trial.

Mr de Villepin, accused of complicity in slander and forgery, is its star defendant. The star plaintiff is Mr Sarkozy.

The trial centres on mysterious lists circulating in 2004 that claimed to show people, including Mr Sarkozy, had secret accounts at the Luxembourg bank Clearstream. The had seemingly been created to store bribes from the sale of warships to Taiwan, among other shady income.

The lists made the rounds in judicial and political circles and were leaked to the media. Then investigators discovered they were fake.

Mr Sarkozy says they were a smear campaign to thwart his bid to be elected president in 2007 - and filed a suit saying he believed Mr de Villepin was "the primary instigator" behind it. At the time, both men were leading conservative contenders to succeed then-President Jacques Chirac.

The presiding judge asked Mr de Villepin today if he sent the lists to judges to investigate them, a key question in the trial.

"No," Mr de Villepin replied. He has said he never saw the lists himself.

Mr de Villepin said he was not behind any plot targeting Mr Sarkozy and denied that his mentor and ally Mr Chirac was involved, testifying that he "never had any presidential instructions from Jacques Chirac in this case".

Before entering the courtroom, Mr de Villepin said taking the stand "will allow me to provide my contribution to the emergence of the truth in an affair in which lies and manipulation have obscured this truth".

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