The acquittal of ex-Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin on slander charges in the Clearstream trial brought by President Nicolas Sarkozy is a significant blow to Sarkozy and to France’s political order. Though Villepin himself is an unlikely candidate to rally political opposition to Sarkozy, given his right-wing record, the decision has sparked rumors of a 2012 presidential bid by Villepin and highlighted the political vacuum of opposition to Sarkozy.
Sarkozy charged that, as interior minister in 2004, Villepin let Sarkozy’s name be attached to falsified bank listings at the Clearstream payment-clearing firm. The goal of this alleged operation was supposedly to discredit Sarkozy, Villepin’s rival for the 2007 presidential nomination of the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). After a trial held last September and October, the court deliberated for months before announcing a verdict yesterday.
It ruled that Villepin did not “know of the falsity of the listings.” Instead, they pinned the blame on intelligence operative and former EADS (European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company) executive Jean-Louis Gergorin, as well as a former CIA and French intelligence asset, Imad Lahoud, both of whom received jail terms. The court noted that Villepin was aware “of the international dimensions of the affair” and of the “political advantage he might draw” from it, given his “notorious rivalry” with Sarkozy.
After the court hearing, Villepin told the press: “I have no bitterness, no desire for revenge. I am ready to turn the page.”
Sarkozy’s lawyer, Thierry Herzog, left the courtroom without comment, and in a press conference at the Elysée palace, Sarkozy refused to make any remark. Prior to the ruling, the media speculated that Sarkozy would not allow a Villepin acquittal to go unchallenged. However, the Elysée issued a statement shortly thereafter, declaring it had “noted” the ruling, expressing its “satisfaction” that the guilty parties had been punished, and saying it would not appeal.
The ruling on Villepin’s case will also affect the upcoming court appearances of former President Jacques Chirac. On October 30, shortly after the end of Villepin’s trial, Chirac was charged with misusing city funds as mayor of Paris, in 1977-1995.
The ruling is a major political embarrassment for Sarkozy. During the trial proceedings last year, he publicly described the accused as “guilty.” He had previously promised, at a 2005 meeting of Lagardère Group executives, that the guilty parties would “hang on butchers’ meat hooks.”
Sarkozy’s decision to sue Villepin placed further question over the constitutionality of his political actions. Le Monde wrote: “The Constitution makes the head of State the protector of the independence of justice—he is president of the Superior Council of Magistrates. It gives him a major role in organizing the judicial system and naming judges. His position on the list of plaintiffs, particularly against a political rival—and contrary to the unwritten tradition, respected by his predecessors, to refrain from lawsuits—can only imperil this fragile structure.”
Le Monde added that Chirac did not personally sue Maxime Brunerie, a young neo-fascist militant who tried to assassinate him in 2002.
The Clearstrean listings themselves emerged during intelligence investigations into political corruption and kickback scandals involving French oil and defense firms in Asia and in France’s former colonial possessions in Africa. These issues were buried in the trial proceedings and the Villepin ruling does nothing to elucidate them.
While the charges Sarkozy brought succeeded in hiding these scandals, the attention they focused on his rivalry with Villepin had unintended consequences. The trial took on the character of a judicial referendum between the policies and orientation of Villepin in the 2002-2007 period under Chirac, and those of Sarkozy since his election in 2007.
Elected after a nationalist campaign featuring an appeal to the neo-fascist Front National vote and signs that he would work with the trade unions, Sarkozy represented a new style of French right-wing politics. He negotiated social cuts openly with trade union leaders and deepened the anti-Muslim policies of Chirac that targeted the Islamic veil for women by proposing an all-out ban on the burqa last year.
Sarkozy’s foreign policy was openly pro-American. He sent more French troops to Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf in 2008, re-integrated France into NATO’s command structure in March 2009, and—as French oil firm Total received a stake in Iraqi oil fields—generally avoided criticizing US foreign policy.
Based on a selective presentation of Villepin’s record, sections of the press have begun to present him as an alternative to Sarkozy. As foreign minister in 2002-2003, Villepin was the public face for France’s attempt to rally opposition at the UN to US plans to invade Iraq. After leaving office, he was also critical of Sarkozy’s anti-immigration measures. In September 2007, he warned that adopting anti-immigrant measures in France could be dangerous, as they might stir popular memories of the anti-Jewish raids (“rafles”) carried out by government authorities under the Nazi occupation.
The growing unpopularity of Sarkozy’s policies is increasingly bringing Villepin to the fore. The “national identity” debate that Sarkozy promoted around proposals to ban the burqa has come under criticism in the press, as it is deeply unpopular and encourages neo-fascist opinion. Due to broad opposition to French participation in the NATO occupation, Sarkozy announced he would not deploy more combat troops to Afghanistan.
The fact that Villepin is now mentioned as a political alternative to Sarkozy highlights, above all, the political vacuum on the left.
The Journal du Dimanche noted that a Villepin candidacy would pose real difficulties to the Parti Socialiste (PS), France’s traditional left party of rule, and associated parties like the Parti Communiste Français (PCF) and the Greens. It wrote that the Villepin verdict was “Bad news for Sarkozy, of course, who will have a hard time containing [Villepin], but above all bad news for the left, who will have to deal with two very credible candidates in the UMP. The two candidates [would be] far superior to the potential candidacies, presumed or discussed for the time being by the PS or the Greens. Villepin acquitted, that’s a problem for [PS First Secretary] Martine Aubry, for [2007 PS presidential candidate Ségolène] Royal, for [ex-PS First Secretary François] Hollande.”
Such comments underscore that these parties have ceased to be in any way forces of the “left.” They do not have a single figure that can claim a memorable record of opposition to Sarkozy’s policies on fundamental questions of domestic politics or foreign relations. In fact, the 1997-2002 Plural Left (PS-PCF-Greens) government carried out large-scale privatizations and sent the first French troop contingents to Afghanistan.
Villepin himself has no popular support for the policies he would enact, and is relying simply on his image as an opponent of Sarkozy.
Le Monde cites Villepin’s conversation with UMP Deputy François Goulard, who said: “I am certain you will be a candidate in 2012. And equally certain that if there had been no trial, you would not have been a candidate.” Villepin replied: “You’ve understood.”
Villepin “is not fundamentally very popular,” pollster Jérôme St. Marie told Les Inrockuptibles, who commented: “The absence of a credible opponent to Sarkozy on the French political scene artificially swells his popularity.”
Villepin became prime minister amid a crisis in Chirac’s foreign policy caused by the failure of the 2005 referendum to create a European Union constitution. During his time in office, France continued to participate in the Afghan war. Villepin’s main initiative was the First Job Contract (Contrat Première Embauche, CPE), which created a new type of easy-hire, easy-fire contract for employers to hire young workers. The proposal caused large-scale demonstrations in early 2006, as millions of youths and workers took to the streets.
Sarkozy and the trade unions, together with the unions’ political aids among the “far left” parties, arranged a partial retraction of the CPE law. This gave an immense political boost and a brief populist coloration to Sarkozy, in the run-up to the 2007 election. Villepin left office with approval ratings below 20 percent.
The media’s decision to promote such a figure as Sarkozy’s main opponent underscores that real opposition to Sarkozy’s policies can only emerge outside the political establishment.