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If Jon Stewart were French, he'd be loving this

Trial of the century or not, France is enjoying the spectacle of the Clearstream affair.

Former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin speaks to the media in Paris, Sept. 13, 2007. A verdict is expected next month on charges that Villepin used what he knew to be false information to hamstring his bitter rival as both jockeyed to succeed Jacques Chirac as president. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

PARIS, France — Charlie Hebdo cuts to the quick. Under the headline, “Separation of Powers!” a knife-wielding Nicolas Sarkozy holds aloft Dominique de Villepin’s severed head.

And the satirical weekly describes the collateral damage with a single image: a bloody red handprint smack in the middle of the president’s white apron.

Le Canard Enchaine, meantime, depicts a haloed “St. Villepin” as a Gandhi-like figure shot full of arrows. A voice bubble reads, “This martyr role suits me well.”

This is about Clearstream, an affair of such hyperbolic complexity that even when testimony ends next month and a verdict emerges crucial questions will remain.

Some call it the trial of the century, unlikely in a country that feeds on juicy scandal. But it is a doozy, muscling aside reality TV and dominating cafe chatter.

In 2004, a French journalist wrote that at least 39 people, Sarkozy included, had deposited secret kickbacks for arms sales in a Luxembourg bank, Clearstream.

The story was bogus. After long investigation, the reporter, who says he was duped, is on trial with three men linked to the plot. But all eyes are on a fifth defendant.

Dominique de Villepin is accused of using what he knew to be false information to hamstring his bitter rival as both jockeyed to succeed Jacques Chirac as president.

If convicted, the former prime minister who opposed the Iraq invasion in a stirring United Nations speech could face five years in prison and 10-year ban from public office.

Most commentators find it reasonable enough that Sarkozy wants his name cleared, although it is doubtful anyone thought him guilty even before the hoax was exposed.

What raises eyebrows is that he is wading into court, via his attorney, as a star plaintiff. As Celestine Bohlen of Bloomberg told a France 24 television interviewer, Sarkozy seems to be listening to his gut, not his head.

In one televised outburst, the president said he wants to see those responsible for Clearstream “hanging from a butcher’s hook.”

In another, Sarkozy referred to the defendants as guilty. Villepin’s lawyer accused him of slander since French courts presume innocence before trial.

Villepin’s approach is nonchalance. Cool and probably smiling too much, he declared last week as the trial began:

“I am here because of the zeal of one man. I am here because of the relentless determination of one man, Nicolas Sarkozy, who is also president of the French Republic. I will come out free and exonerated in the name of France.”