It's been an important day in the so-called Clearstream Affair, a scandal which goes right to the top of French politics. The trial of former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has begun (he also used to be foreign minister, you might his performances at the UN as a leading critic of the rush to war in Iraq back in 2003). He's accused of plotting to discredit the current President, Nicolas Sarkozy, in an attempt to harm his chances of winning the 2007 presidential election.
So, where to begin with this murky tale. The first thing to know is that M de Villepin and M Sarkozy were bitter rivals, and both wanted to replace Jacques Chirac as President in 2007. Although M de Villepin was M Chirac's choice, it was clear that M Sarkozy was much more popular with the public, and would surely win unless some scandal derailed him. Just such a scandal apparently came along when M Sarkozy's name was included on a secret list of prominent people who had accounts with a Luxembourg bank (Clearstream) and who had allegedly taken bribes relating to international arms sales. However, it quickly turned out the list was a hoax. The question that has been at the centre of the scandal ever since is: was M de Villepin involved in the forgery?
M de Villepin denies the charges against him, and he seemed typically unruffled as his trial began earlier, even though he faces prison if found guilty. He says the authorities have pursued him so doggedly over the last couple of years purely because of M Sarkozy's hatred of him. However, while all this is great theatre, it's unlikely to change the political situation in France very much. M Sarkozy won the election, which basically means M de Villepin's political career is over anyway. And as M Sarkozy seems to be the innocent party in the Clearstream affair, it's difficult to see how any information that comes to light during the trial could damage him. All the more reason for him to enjoy watching his old rival squirm in the dock.