Paris Political leader Dominique de Villepin, the impassioned voice of French opposition to the U.S. war in Iraq, was formally accused Friday of complicity in a tawdry campaign to smear his rival Nicolas Sarkozy's reputation and presidential aspirations.
A silver-haired intellectual who has served as foreign minister, interior minister and prime minister, de Villepin was hit with preliminary charges that include "complicity in slanderous denunciations" and "complicity in using forgeries," according to one of his attorneys. De Villepin, who vehemently denied the charges, could face up to five years in prison if convicted.
The charges filed by investigating judges stem from an alleged attempt in 2003-04 to discredit Sarkozy, who was, like Villepin, a government minister, member of the conservative UMP party and potential candidate for the country's highest office.
The scandal began when a judge received a mysterious computer disc accusing Sarkozy and other top ministers of using a Luxembourg bank to hide kickbacks from the sale of $2.8 billion worth of French frigates to Taiwan in 1991.
But the charges proved baseless and investigators turned their attention to finding out who had sent the disc.
Villepin, then-foreign minister, came under suspicion of attempting to smear his rival by asking intelligence official Gen. Philippe Rondot to secretly investigate Sarkozy for bribe-taking.
Villepin admits asking Rondot to investigate the case, but denies naming Sarkozy as a target or otherwise attempting to smear him.
That argument was weakened by traces of Rondot's erased computer files recovered by investigators probing the smear. Rondot appeared to have written in the files that two key figures said that Villepin - acting on orders from then-President Jacques Chirac - told them to go public with the secret bank account list that named Sarkozy.
The investigators searched Villepin's home and office this month after finding the computer files.
Under French law, preliminary charges mean the investigating judge has determined there is strong evidence to suggest involvement in a crime. The filing gives the magistrate time to further pursue an investigation that can result in a trial or the dropping of charges if no crime is found.