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

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.”

As dailies cover the players and layers, the satirical weeklies, in their Jon Stewart-type role of mocking hard truths, revel in the fray.

Putting aside Villepin’s grandiloquence and possible crimes or misdemeanors, Erik Emptaz says in the Canard, “He is undeniably right about the reasons he is in the box.”

Despite the judicial formality, Emptaz adds, “The courtroom is transformed into a ring, and we are watching a fight that is more physical than legalistic.”

Enmity between the two goes back to 1994 when Sarkozy split with Chirac to forge his own political base. But Charlie Hebdo hammers away at conflicting personalities.

Villepin, tall and patrician with wavy silver hair, is a diplomat-poet, the likely choice of casting directors for the elected-monarch role of French president.

Sarkozy, a scrappy political infighter of Hungarian roots with no noble “de” in his name, is famously touchy about his short stature.

In a Charlie Hebdo cartoon, two aides tell Sarkozy the flight crew taking him to the Pittsburgh G20 summit and the leaders to be pictured with him will be under 5-feet tall. As he stares at the aides, both scramble to their knees. One adds: “And, I forgot, you’ll be accompanied only by ministers less than 1.2 meters (4 feet) tall.”

Such amateur psychological guesswork hardly bears on the case, but it feeds the prevailing mood.

Villepin groupies cheer his arrival in court even though there is evidence against him. Many criticize Sarkozy’s vindictiveness against those who cross him.

Pre-electoral dirty tricks are as French as liver complaints. But traditionally the winner backs away and settles old scores out of sight. This time is different.

As veteran commentator Alain Duhamel wrote under the headline, “Dominique de Villepin, Two-Headed Eagle,” in the daily Liberation: “Both men are brilliant, passionate, choleric and courageous,” but their singular characters oblige them to shoot it out in full public view.

Duhamel sees Villepin as that doubled-headed Austria eagle, on one side of Homeric stature, seductive and valiant but on the other manipulative, intriguing and dark.

“This gives the trial a dimension that is as ambiguous as it is novel-like,” he concludes, “because with him, being double, anything is possible.”

True enough, but Charlie Hebdo made its point. Even if Sarkozy manages to whack off his rival’s head, he will likely end up with a bloody handprint on his chest.