Verdict launches de Villepin's political future

PARIS, France — The slander trial pitting the French president against a former prime minister ended on Thursday with the acquittal of Dominique de Villepin. The court concluded in a 326-page judgment that there wasn't enough proof to determine that he acted in "bad faith" by not alerting Nicolas Sarkozy that his name appeared on a list tied to an alleged money laundering scheme. Three out of four co-defendants also on trial were found guilty.

The acquittal essentially cleared the way for de Villepin's political comeback while leaving room for observers to contemplate whether the court's decision will be appealed. 

The secrets and lies that unfolded in a Palais de Justice courtroom this fall seemed the stuff of Hollywood, with manipulation, political intrigue, Machiavellian schemes and revenge plots. But ultimately, the spectacle of two powerful men having their dirty laundry — and disdain for one another — aired in a public forum boiled down to a most basic of human tendencies: competition between rivals. 

“It’s the settling of scores between the two of them,” said Steven Coupin, 28, a self-described political centrist and, like many French, an observer of the trial. 

Even before the long-awaited decision, rendered on Sarkozy’s 55th birthday, some de Villepin supporters insisted the outcome would not matter one way or another. “The trial is not going to affect his popularity,” Coupin said on the eve of the verdict, explaining why the silver-haired, career diplomat and poet is beloved by many French. “He embodies traditional French republican values which many French people recognize in themselves.” 

De Villepin was accused of “complicity in slanderous accusations,” and faced 18 months of a suspended jail sentence along with a 45,000-euro fine. Sarkozy was one of 40 plaintiffs in the case, which began years ago with a list of names of people who purportedly held secret offshore bank accounts tied to kickbacks. The list was eventually revealed to be a fake but not before Sarkozy’s name was linked to it and a public investigation, prompted by de Villepin, had begun.

The investigation was seen as a maneuver to tarnish Sarkozy’s name and discredit him ahead of his bid to seek the presidency, a prize that de Villepin, a protege of former President Jacques Chirac, also had his eye on. Four others — a mathematician, a former diplomat and executive, a journalist, and a former auditor — were also tried for their involvement. All except for the journalist were found guilty.

If anything, supporters said the trial bolstered de Villepin’s image as a political fighter along with their own resolve to stand by him. It served as a rallying cry not only for supporters to his cause but also for the man on whom many have staked their political hopes for the future of France.

“The more they try to eliminate him the more determined he is,” said Brigitte Girardin, 57, a former minister under Chirac who is now president of Club Villepin. The group claims to bring together nearly 8,000 de Villepin supporters through social networking platforms like Twitter and Facebook, or through a members-only portal where financial contributions to the effort can be made. 

Without naming names, Girardin, who has known de Villepin for about 30 years and has also worked with him, reiterated that though the court case was a political ploy mounted to destabilize the former prime minister, “his political commitment is not negotiable." 

The club’s efforts to mobilize supporters though should not be regarded as campaigning — at least not yet — since de Villepin is still in the exploratory stages of a possible run for president in 2012. Over the next months, he plans to criss-cross the nation on a listening tour to “nourish his reflection,” Girardin said. 

“His objective is to bring French people together and to propose alternatives,” said Sidi Sakho, a 25-year-old business student who sits on the club’s environmental advisory committee. The idea is “to think collectively instead of individually," around large themes like social justice, the country's future and the environment. 

And de Villepin seemed ready to do just that, saying in a recent radio interview: “My commitment has always been to serve my country, and that commitment is even stronger today than yesterday.” 

Sarkozy, who once promised to see those responsible for the affair hang from a butcher’s hook, remained virtually silent throughout these last months of deliberations, perhaps having learned his lesson from a gaffe in September when he referred to the defendants as “guilty parties” before the trial had concluded. The gaffe prompted some to wonder aloud about the presumption of innocence in a judicial system largely overseen by the president.

When you have a president who also exercises authority over the judiciary as a civil plaintiff, there’s a problem, Girardin said. “We no longer know where the separation of powers is,” she said. 

Sarkozy passed up the chance to comment about the trial during his first prime time television appearance this week, saying only that he preferred “that justice do its job and say what she thinks.” 

In spite of the outcome, one of the challenges for de Villepin will be to refashion his aristocratic, bourgeois image to appeal to a broader segment of the voting population. Coupin said the French might be able to overlook the fact that de Villepin has never held elected office because of the charisma he displayed on the world stage as prime minister. Despite his erudite image, he seems capable of defending the country’s interests, said Coupin, evidenced by his speech before the United Nations that kept France out of the war with Iraq in 2003. 

“He makes people want to get behind him,” said Coupin. “The big question mark is whether the people who seem to like him are really going to follow him.”