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Former French prime minister acquitted in slander case

French judges on Thursday acquitted former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin on charges of conspiring in a campaign to slander French President Nicolas Sarkozy and prevent his victory in the 2007 presidential election.

The ruling was expected to boost De Villepin’s position as the conservative most capable of challenging Sarkozy’s near monopoly of the moderate right that now dominates French politics.

“It’s been a nasty birthday for Sarkozy,” said Gael Sliman, political commentator and deputy director of France’s BVA polling institute. The president turned 55 on Thursday.

De Villepin had been accused of complicity in slander and forgery in connection with a 2004 smear campaign that sought to connect Sarkozy and more than three dozen other people to alleged kickbacks from a weapons sale to Taiwan in 1991. A list of bank accounts allegedly held by Luxembourg-based Clearstream and linked to kickbacks was later revealed to be a hoax.

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The judges, who convicted three other defendants for their role in the conspiracy and acquitted another, said they could not prove that De Villepin knew the list was fake when he learned of the so-called Clearstream affair. If convicted, he could have faced a fine of $63,000 and a suspended prison sentence.

“After several testing years, my innocence has been recognized,” De Villepin told supporters and reporters outside the courtroom.

“I was hurt by the image that they wanted to give to politics,” he said. “I want to turn toward the future, to serve the French and contribute do a spirit of togetherness.”

Sarkozy and De Villepin have long been rivals within the ruling Union for a Popular Movement party, or UMP. Their worsening relationship has been dubbed the political duel of the decade by French news media. De Villepin has accused the president of trying to hang him “on a butcher’s hook” and eliminate opposition.

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Sarkozy helped intensify the battle last year when he referred to defendants as “the guilty.” He later apologized.

In the end, the trial may have helped the former prime minister become the leading opponent to Sarkozy for the next presidential election in 2012, according to political experts.

Many French “are saying to themselves: it’s extraordinary . . . a president wrongly and relentlessly pursuing his former rival,” Sliman said. De Villepin’s newly established legitimacy “is bothersome for Sarkozy because until now he didn’t have a rival on the right,” he said.

“Sarkozy dominated the UMP for so long, and now we have some oxygen! Some room to breath and debate,” said one De Villepin supporter, Patrice Charles, 50, who waited outside the courtroom Thursday.

De Villepin has hinted at plans to run in 2012, and he recently went on a campaign-style tour in the low-income suburbs around Paris. Sarkozy has long had trouble visiting those areas, especially after he called ghetto youth “scum” days before riots broke out in 2005. De Villepin represents a more classic form of French social conservatism and aristocratic style than that of the typically jittery, and on occasion, infamously brash Sarkozy.

In a statement, Sarkozy defended his decision to file an official complaint on charges of libel that led to the case because he wanted the “serious” fake listings “brought to the attention of the French.”

He said he would not appeal the verdict.

The judges found co-defendant Jean-Louis Gergorin, a former executive at aerospace group EADS, guilty of slander, forgery and other charges. He was sentenced to three years in prison, with 21 months suspended, and fined $56,000.

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Imad Lahoud was sentenced to three years in prison with 18 months of that suspended and a $56,000 fine for falsification and other charges. Florian Bourges was given a four-month suspended sentence for his role in the conspiracy. The final defendant, investigative journalist Denis Robert, was acquitted.

Lauter is a special correspondent.


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