January 29, 2010 2:00 am
Dominique de Villepin, France's former prime minister, signalled his return to the political front line yesterday after being acquitted of involvement in a plot to blacken the name of archrival Nicolas Sarkozy.
Within minutes of the verdict in the so-called Clearstream trial at a Paris criminal court, Mr de Villepin suggested he would use his acquittal as a springboard to relaunch his political career and take on his old foe, possibly in the 2012 presidential election.
"I want to turn towards the future to serve the French people and contribute, in a spirit of unity, to turning round France," Mr de Villepin, 56, told the media in the Palais de Justice, before allowing himself a smile at the verdict.
The month-long trial , which concluded in October, gripped the country as it laid bare the animosity and score-settling at the apex of France's political system.
Mr de Villepin and Mr Sarkozy were protégés of Jacques Chirac, the former president, and became rivals for the leadership of the centre-right. The verdict is a blow to Mr Sarkozy, who took the un-usual step for a head of state of joining the case as a plaintiff, turning the trial into a duel between the two rivals.
The Clearstream affair involved a plot in 2004 to smear Mr Sarkozy's reputation - and torpedo his political career - by fraudulently adding his name to a list of secret bank accounts supposedly held with Clearstream, the Luxembourg clearing house.
Mr de Villepin had faced a possible suspended prison sentence of up to 18 months had he been found guilty of complicity in an attempted defamation, but the court found no proof that he had either instigated the conspiracy or willingly allowed it to proceed.
Three of the four other defendants were found guilty for their involvement in the attempted smear campaign. Jean-Louis Gergorin, a former senior executive of EADS, the aerospace group, and a friend of Mr de Villepin, was sentenced to three years in prison, half of it suspended, for masterminding the plot.
On the opening day of the trial in September, Mr de Villepin declared he was there "on the wishes of one man", implying the trial was politically motivated.
A few days later, Mr Sarkozy described the defendants as "guilty" on prime-time television.
After the verdict, Mr de Villepin praised the "courage" of the three judges for finding him not guilty.
Mr Sarkozy said he was "satisfied" by the verdict, adding he had joined the case as a plaintiff to highlight to the public "practices that dishonour democracy". He was awarded €1 in damages.
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