Clearstream ruling bolsters Villepin's chances of a political comeback
Former French president Dominique de Villepin was cleared on Thursday of charges that he had tried to smear Nicoloas Sarkozy. In the ruling read out to a Paris court, the presiding judge said there was "no clear evidence."
Villepin smiled and shook hands with supporters as he walked out of the Paris courtroom. "My innocence has been recognized," Villepin told reporters outside.
"I don't bear any grudges or rancour. I want to turn the page ... I want to look to the future, to serve the French people and continue in a spirit of unity," Villepin said.
Slap in the face for Sarkozy
The acquittal was a clear victory for the former prime minister, who has set his sights on the 2012 presidential elections and hopes the ruling will help revive his political career at a time when his long-time rival Sarkozy is struggling with poor approval ratings.
Sarkozy, a civil plaintiff in the case, had reportedly vowed to hang those responsible for the scandal by a "butcher's hook". He said, however, in a statement following the ruling that he was satisfied by the verdict and would not appeal.
In the so-called Clearstream case, Villepin was accused of using faked documents as part of a plot to sabotage the campaign of his long-time rival Nicolas Sarkozy to win the presidency in 2007, when both politicians were vying to succeed President Jacques Chirac.
Prosecutors in the trial that has gripped France were asking for a suspended jail sentence of 18 months and a 45,000 euro ($70,000) fine for Villepin, 56, on charges of complicity to slander Sarkozy.
The Clearstream affair made front page news across France in 2005. It centred on a list of account holders at the Luxembourg-based securities clearing house Clearstream who were alleged to have taken bribes from the sale of French warships to Taiwan. Sarkozy's name was on the list, which later turned out to have been fabricated.
The former prime minister always denied the charges. During the month-long trial, he defended himself vigorously, saying he never knew that the list was false and never planned to use it against Sarkozy.
However, the court found three of Villepin's co-defendants guilty. Former EADS executive Jean-Louis Gergorin and computer specialist Imad Lahoud were both found guilty on the major counts of slander and use of false documents. The pair received a jail sentence and a fine. The auditor who obtained the false documents, Florian Bourges, was found guilty of breach of trust and theft.
Editor: Michael Lawton