Sympathy for the de Villepin?

France can hardly believe its luck. The silver fox, the poet-politician, is in the dock. Dominique de Villepin, the former premier of France, stands accused of plotting to discredit Nicolas Sarkozy in the run-up to the 2007 presidential election. The country is rapt: this is the trial of the decade, a drama of intense rivalries and ruthless judges that will play out to an enthralled and addicted audience over the next few weeks. It's the French equivalent of The X Factor.

The plot has everything - from falsified bank accounts and an unshaven journalist to alleged links to international arms sales. It would take weeks to explain the whole story, but suffice to say that de Villepin is charged with a litany of crimes - slander, falsifying documents, dealing in stolen property and breach of trust - all apparently in the name of ruining the career of the man he allegedly calls "the dwarf".

De Villepin, with his sweep of greying hair and reputation as a lofty intellectual, can't be pleased to find himself cast as the central protagonist in a real-life John Grisham novel. This is, after all, the man who wrote an 823-page treatise on French poetry: "If the poet still consumes himself, he refuses the enclosures of thought, certainties, to camp in the heart of the mystery, in the living spirit of the flame." His literary aspirations are rather beyond the airport novel: after the 11 September 2001 attacks, de Villepin wandered the streets of Manhattan "facing the raging winds" and "called upon the words of Rimbaud, Artaud or Duprey". But there is no raging wind quite like that of a diminutive French president. (Sarkozy has said of those found responsible for smearing him that he would hang them "on a butcher's hook".)

Perhaps the ex-premier can console himself with the setting for this ignominy. The trial is in the Grande Chambre, a gilded, chandelier-filled room in the Palais de Justice, by the looming towers of Notre Dame in Paris.

It was where the Revolutionary Tribunal sat in 1795 and where Marie Antoinette was sentenced to the guillotine. This, surely, is enough to get the creative cogs whirring. De Villepin may emerge for ever tarnished (or not, if he ends up in prison), but he should get a good poem or two out of the whole murky affair.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter