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Verdict launches de Villepin's political future

Will the former prime minister challenge French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012?

Dominique de Villepin, center, and his daughter, the model Marie de Villepin, left, leave after the former French prime minister was acquitted in the so-called "Clearstream case" at the courthouse in Paris, Jan. 28, 2010. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

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.