IMAGE: Dominique de Villepin
Laurent Baheux  /  AP
Former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin faces the media after appearing before judges at a Paris courthouse on Friday.
updated 7/27/2007 10:52:16 AM ET 2007-07-27T14:52:16

Judges filed preliminary charges Friday against former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin for his suspected role in a smear campaign that targeted Nicolas Sarkozy before he became France’s president, an attorney said.

The case stems from an attempt three years ago to discredit Sarkozy, who was a government minister at the time and a political rival of Villepin within their conservative UMP party. Sarkozy and other prominent figures were falsely accused of having secret bank accounts to hold bribes from a 1991 sale of frigates to Taiwan.

Villepin was charged with “complicity in slanderous denunciations” and complicity in using forged documents, said Luc Brossollet, a lawyer for the former prime minister.

Under French law, preliminary charges mean there is strong evidence to suggest involvement in a crime. The filing gives the magistrate time to pursue a deeper probe that could lead a trial.

Villepin, once a rising star in France’s conservative circles of power, denied wrongdoing in the case, which shook the government of former President Jacques Chirac.

“At no moment did I take part in any political maneuvering,” he said after appearing before the judges.

Mysterious CD-ROM
The scandal began when a judge received a mysterious CD-ROM accusing Sarkozy and other top ministers of holding secret accounts in the Luxembourg bank Clearstream. But investigators realized the scheme was a hoax and turned their attention to uncovering the culprits.

Villepin told the judges he needs time to study the extensive case files before answering questions, his attorneys said.

“He has never had access to the dossier before,” said lawyer Olivier d’Antin. “He informed the judge that he was ready to respond to questions once he had knowledge of the dossier.”

Villepin stepped down as prime minister after Sarkozy took office in May. Shortly afterward, investigators searched his home and office after the discovery of his name in computer files belonging to a Defense Ministry official, Gen. Philippe Rondot. Rondot wrote in his notes that two key players in the affair told him Villepin had been behind the smear campaign.

Rondot, a former spy, had been asked by Villepin to investigate the list of secret bank accounts. Investigators are trying to determine whether Villepin knew the list was a fake, and even whether he was behind its creation.

Villepin said Friday he took the list seriously and that he ordered the investigation “to confront threats concerning our economic interests.”

“Naturally, I will respond to all questions that will be asked of me,” Villepin said.

Well-known figures questioned
Other prominent figures have been questioned in the case, including former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, defense minister at the time. Chirac has refused to be questioned in the affair, citing judicial immunity granted for acts during his presidential tenure.

Villepin was believed to have presidential ambitions when the scandal broke, but his popularity plunged during strikes and protests over a labor law he pushed for last year. The longtime diplomat, who served as foreign and interior minister under Chirac before being named premier, made his mark on the international stage with a 2003 speech before the U.N. Security Council arguing against the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Villepin is the third former French premier to face legal troubles. In 2004, Alain Juppe was convicted in a corruption case that predated his time as premier and given a 14-month suspended prison sentence and a yearlong ban from politics. In 1999, Laurent Fabius was acquitted of manslaughter in a case of people given blood transfusions tainted with the HIV virus.

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