Image by Franck Prevel via Flickr
Dominique de Villepin, former Prime Minister of France, former Foreign Minister best known to the world for his speech of opposition to the war in Iraq at the United Nations General Assembly, is to appear in court on Monday, accused of complicity in a plot to blacken the reputation of President Sarkozy, then just a presidential candidate, by making it appear that he had been laundering money from bribes arising from the sale of frigates to Taiwan.
Complicated? You just bet.
President Sarkozy has let it be known that he wants politics cleaned up...no more of these plots and manoevres which have, he says, been typical of the Vth French Republic. He has also let it be known, rather more colourfully, that he wants the perpetrators of this particular plot 'hung from meathooks'. I have always said that he has so sense of historical resonance.
However, history seems to be what all this is about.
Sarkozy was once a protege of Chirac, famous for his Spanish practices while Maire of Paris and then President of France. As any good protege should, Sarkozy made himself agreeable to his patron's daughter but then, somewhat tactlessly, dumped her for something less dumpy. In for a penny, in for a pound, Sarkozy compounded his error by supporting Balladur, Chirac's unsuccessful rival, which left Sarkozy out in the cold for some considerable time, until his growing support in the party forced him back into government.
De Villepin has always been Chirac's man.... a graduate from the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, one of the 'enarques' who appear to think that the government of France should only be confided to one of their number. Sarkozy is not an enarque. Never elected to any office, de Villepin was Chirac's chief of staff before being appointed Foreign Minister and then Prime Minister, and, in the run up to the last Presidential elections, was Chirac's choice of candidate, though Sarkozy, by then Finance Minister, was making all the running.
While the preparations for that election were hotting up, de Villepin happened to meet his old friend Jean-Louis Gergorin, another enarque, and, at the time, vice president of the aerospace company EADS, just before the latter approached an investigating magistrate with a list purportedly showing the names of those involved in the kickbacks from the frigate deal with accounts with a Luxembourg company called Clearstream. Although it quickly became apparent that the documents were forged, de Villepin mounted an enquiry, an enquiry which, according to the then head of intelligence in France, was ordered by Chirac himself. Chirac refuses to answer any questions, claiming the immunity which covers any actions of a President of the French Republic while in office.
Inevitably, news of the enquiry leaked, and Sarkozy confronted de Villepin, accusing him of making it appear as though the allegations had weight by ordering an enquiry after it was clear that the evidence was a forgery. He then brought a civil action to clear his name.
In the meantime, Sarkozy has become President, de Villepin is an isolated figure in his own party, but, more importantly, the investigating magistrates have been busy confiscating all sorts of interesting documents, including the notebook of France's chief spy, cataloguing the little foibles of the country's political elite. Rumours abound of the dirty tricks played against Sarkozy in the run up to the election, including, apparently, alerting his then wife to his infidelities, which might be one explanation of her refusal to be at his side during the campaign.
De Villepin might have trouble wriggling off this particular meathook - I think a lot depends on how much can be put down to Chirac who of course will not testify - but he is mounting an interesting defence. Despite the fact that a court has already ruled that a President can bring actions while in office, de Villepin's lawyers will be arguing that it is impossible for the court to hear Sarkozy's charges as the inequality between the parties is so great....Sarkozy can attack as an individual, while being immune from attack in his turn, as President. It's a bit like being armed with a machine gun while wearing Ned Kelly's protective armour.
Why does this case have any importance for the general public, apart from the wafts of sleaze in the wings? It is important because Sarkozy has announced that he wants no more of these insalubrious plottings and if that is the case it can be nothing but a good thing for the political climate in France. However, as he is also proposing to abolish the role of the investigating magistrate, it is hard to see how we should ever know about any future government shennanigans, since the French press is supine and the future investigators will be the government run prosecution service.