In only the latest episode of French politics at their ugliest, one of the highest profile trials in modern memory begins this week in Paris. Known as the Clearstream trial, it pits a sitting president, Nicolas Sarkozy, against a former prime minister, Dominique de Villepin—who is one of a handful of defendants in a convoluted story of corruption and frame-ups sure to settle onto French front pages for a full month. Villepin is accused of cultivating a corruption investigation against Sarkozy, knowing the evidence was phony, to smear his longtime rival. It is high-stakes political drama Hollywood couldn't have made up.
The lead-up to the trial was a tantalizing public war of words between the two men, long deemed "brother enemies" by the French press for their shared pedigree as ex-prodigies of President Jacques Chirac. Their history of sniping at one another goes back 15 years, to when Sarkozy was budget minister and Villepin was the foreign minister's top adviser. Sarkozy, on a visit to Brazil this month hailed the coming trial, telling journalists, "It's high time we were rid of all of these dirty tricks under the Fifth Republic, once and for all. No matter who is responsible for them." Villepin declared that the president "must have a bit of a twisted soul to be obsessed to this extent" by the case. Villepin's lawyer even compared the French president to Adolf Hitler, in reference to Sarkozy's pledge to string up his own tormentors "on a meat hook."
The case has been an endless soap opera for years in France. In 2004, during a corruption investigation—of the 1991 sale of frigates to Taiwan—an investigating magistrate was given bank records originating from a Luxembourg-based clearing house called Clearstream. The listings were supposed to name potential recipients of kickbacks in the frigate affair. The names included celebrities, members of the Russian mafia, industrialists at top firms like Airbus, and a handful of top politicians—including two variations on the name of then finance minister Nicolas Sarkozy. But it turned out the names on the list were fakes, added to real bank records by a fraudster in a frame-up effort.
Sarkozy, reasonably, believed the fraud was a smear campaign to block his road to the French presidency (which he eventually won in 2007, all along the way playing up his role as a victim in this investigation). One party with the motive and the opportunity, if not to add the names himself then to push for a corruption investigation when he allegedly knew the listings were fake, was Dominique de Villepin. At the time, Villepin, the dashing foreign minister who captured the world's attention and French hearts in 2003 with a speech before the United Nations in a failed effort to preempt the Iraq War, reportedly fancied his own chances for a presidential run. (Chirac named Villepin prime minister in 2005, serving until Sarkozy won the presidency in 2007.) The trial due to conclude Oct. 23 will aim to resolve what Villepin knew, and when, and what he did with the information he had. He is charged with "complicity" in defamation and the dissemination of forged documents.
If Villepin is convicted, he faces up to five years in jail and risks losing his eligibility to hold public office. It is true that French judges, even when asked to punish politicians found guilty, have displayed a laxity that observers (particularly foreign ones) find shocking—not to mention the odd behavior French voters seem willing put up with. (Canadian university professors and students were appalled in 2005 when former French prime minister Alain Juppé, serving out a year of political ineligibility for a corruption conviction in a party-financing scheme at home in France, moved to Montreal to teach at Quebec's National School of Public Administration, of all things. When he returned to France, he was promptly reelected mayor of Bordeaux and even served a short time in Sarkozy's government.)
Villepin's primary concern, though, is about Sarkozy's own ambiguous role. Before entering the courtroom for the first time Monday, Villepin told reporters, "I am here because of one man. I am here because of the relentlessness of one man, Nicolas Sarkozy." Indeed, his lawyers used the trial's opening day to ask that Sarkozy not be allowed to remain a plaintiff at all, as a sitting president with influence over the judiciary. Since French presidents are immune from standing trial themselves, argued Le Monde's lead editorial this weekend, they should recuse themselves from pressing charges against others. Sarkozy has always argued that, although he isn't above the law, he isn't below it either and should be able to stand as a simple plaintiff among the dozens of other alleged smear victims in this case. The court responded that Sarkozy may remain a plaintiff through the course of the trial but also that it would address the issue in the verdict—which, Le Monde reported, was seen as a small victory in Sarkozy's camp. Villepin's lawyers likely had little faith that their own complaint would sway the court anyway, but registering it, citing the European Convention on Human Rights's guarantee of a fair trial, could help if Villepin chooses to bring the matter before the European Court of Human Rights later on.
Incredibly, this case is merely the second internecine fraud battle at the very top of French politics this month. It was a welcome respite for the embattled opposition Socialist Party, two of whose star members have sparred over renewed allegations of voter fraud in the November 2008 election of its leader, Martine Aubry. She beat Ségolène Royal (the Socialist Party presidential candidate defeated by Sarkozy in 2007) by only 102 votes in a party ballot last fall. But a new book this month dredged up dirt about irregularities that may have given Aubry the edge. Strangely, Socialist Party heavyweights offered odd defenses to the public: that fraud was nothing new in Socialist Party elections and that there was probably fraud on both sides anyway. After initially hinting at legal action, Royal has relented somewhat, putting the ball in Aubry's court for now.
Both of these cases augur electoral bloodlust in the 2012 presidential race. Royal and Aubry are among a small handful of potential nominees that could battle it out in an open primary on the left. And on the right, some believe if Villepin is cleared in the Clearstream trial, he'll run, despite Sarkozy's likely bid for presidential reelection. These fight-to-the-political-death battles, and the nasty epilogues to follow, provide a disastrous picture of French politics. But the most disturbing casualty is the illusion that a new generation of French leaders would mark the end of France's particularly sinewy politics as usual. Plus ça change....