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By James Mackenzie
PARIS (Reuters) - The trial pitting former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin against President Nicolas Sarkozy winds up this week after a courtroom epic that has badly tarnished France's political elite.
Villepin, an aristocratic ex-diplomat and a bitter rival to Sarkozy when they were ministers in the government of former President Jacques Chirac, is accused of taking part in a failed plot to destroy Sarkozy's bid for power in 2007.
Prosecutors have tried to show Villepin arranged for faked documents apparently implicating Sarkozy and dozens of others from the business and political elite to be sent to a judge investigating kickbacks on an arms deal dating from the 1990s.
They have asked for an 18-month suspended jail sentence and a fine of 45,000 euros (40, 654 pounds) for him and jail terms for the two men accused of being behind the alleged manoeuvre.
Villepin has rejected the charge and says he is himself the victim of the president's vindictiveness.
"I am here because of the decision of one man and the obsession of one man -- Nicolas Sarkozy," he declared on the opening day of the trial last month.
The bitterness has been underlined by the contrast behind the silver-haired Villepin, a suave product of France's elite educational system and Sarkozy, the brash outsider who came to power pledging to sweep aside the old order.
The case will go quiet for some months as judges consider their verdict but for both men, the political stakes are high.
A guilty verdict would almost certainly kill off any lingering political ambitions Villepin may have but, if he is cleared, it would be a slap in the face to Sarkozy and could provide a focus for rumbling discontent in his own camp.
"NAUSEATING"
The details of the affair, centred on a falsified list of "secret accounts" purportedly held at Luxembourg financial institution Clearstream and supposedly linked to bribery and corruption, are complex and much disputed.
But they have shone a stark light on the toxic climate of rivalry and sheer hatred that reigned when Villepin and Sarkozy were angling to succeed the ageing Chirac in 2007.
Jean-Louis Debre, president of the Constitutional Council and a former speaker of the National Assembly, said the affair, which has dominated national news bulletins and front pages, gave a "desperately sad" image of French political life.
"France is going through so many difficulties today, so many people are suffering, that spending our days listening to this gives me a nauseating feeling," he said this week.
The prosecutor accused two men of mounting the plot, Jean-Louis Gergorin, a former executive of aerospace group EADS with ties to the intelligence services, and computer specialist Imad Lahoud, who is accused of falsifying the lists.
He said Villepin tried to exploit the lists to damage Sarkozy by having Gergorin hand them over to the judge.
Villepin says he held one meeting about the documents when they were brought to his attention in 2004 but had nothing to do with the events after that.
His lawyers argued that Sarkozy, interior minister at the time, knew the documents were circulating but chose to do nothing in the hope that Villepin would be drawn into the plot.
Whatever the outcome of the case, politicians and commentators from across the spectrum say it has strengthened the image of an out-of-touch and self-obsessed elite.
"It is politics that is making itself ridiculous," the conservative daily Le Figaro declared when the trial started.
(Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)

Reuters