French ex-premier accused of political smears

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PARIS (AP) – Political leader Dominique de Villepin, the impassioned voice of French opposition to the U.S. war in Iraq, was formally accused Friday of complicity in a tawdry campaign to smear his rival Nicolas Sarkozy’s reputation and presidential aspirations.

A silver-haired intellectual who has served as foreign minister, interior minister and prime minister, de Villepin was hit with preliminary charges that include “complicity in slanderous denunciations” and “complicity in using forgeries,” according to one of his lawyers. De Villepin, who vehemently denied the charges, could face up to five years in prison if convicted.

The charges filed by investigating judges stem from an alleged attempt in 2003-2004 to discredit Sarkozy, who was, like Villepin, a government minister, member of the conservative UMP party and potential candidate for the country’s highest office.

The scandal began when a judge received a mysterious computer disc accusing Sarkozy and other top ministers of using a Luxembourg bank to hide kickbacks from the sale of $2.8 billion worth of French frigates to Taiwan in 1991.

But the charges proved baseless and investigators turned their attention to finding out who had sent the disc.

Villepin, then foreign minister, came under suspicion of attempting to smear his rival by asking intelligence official Gen. Philippe Rondot to secretly investigate Sarkozy for bribe-taking.

Villepin admits asking Rondot to investigate the case, but denies naming Sarkozy as a target or otherwise attempting to smear him.

That argument was weakened by traces of Rondot’s erased computer files recovered by investigators probing the smear. Rondot appeared to have written in the files that two key figures said that Villepin – acting on orders from then-President Jacques Chirac – told them to go public with the secret bank account list that named Sarkozy.

The investigators searched Villepin’s home and office this month after finding the computer files.

Under French law, preliminary charges mean the investigating judge has determined there is strong evidence to suggest involvement in a crime. The filing gives the magistrate time to further pursue an investigation that can result in a trial or the dropping of charges if no crime is found.

The case has cast a shadow over the reputation of Villepin, 53, who left his strongest mark as foreign minister in 2002-2004.

At the U.N. Security Council in February 2003, he argued that war with Iraq should be a last resort.

“In this temple of the United Nations, we are the guardians of an ideal, the guardians of conscience,” he said. “This onerous responsibility and immense honor we have must lead us to give priority to disarmament through peace.”

Delegates broke protocol to applaud. But the attempts also earned him enemies. The New York Post doctored a photo to show Villepin and his anti-war ally, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, as weasels.

Inside France, his popularity plunged during strikes and protests over a labor law he pushed last year. He left the premiership in May when Sarkozy won France’s highest office.

On Friday he vowed to fight his case “so the truth can at last appear.”

“At no moment did I take part in any political maneuvering,” he said.

Judges also barred Villepin from meeting with Chirac, his political mentor, as well as four major players in the alleged smear campaign. Villepin is appealing the measures, judicial officials said.

Other prominent figures questioned in the case include former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, who was defense minister during some of the period under investigation.

Chirac has refused to be questioned in the affair, citing judicial immunity granted for acts during his presidential tenure.

Villepin is not the first former French premier to face legal woes. In 2004, Alain Juppe was convicted in a corruption case that predated his time as premier and given a 14-month suspended prison sentence and a yearlong ban from politics. In 1999, Laurent Fabius was acquitted of manslaughter in the case of people given blood transfusions tainted with the HIV virus.

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