Judges filed preliminary charges Friday against former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin for his suspected role in a smear campaign that targeted Nicolas Sarkozy before he became France's president, an attorney said.

Villepin was charged with "complicity in slanderous denunciations" after being questioned by investigative judges, said Luc Brossollet, a lawyer for the former prime minister.

The case stems from an attempt three years ago to discredit Sarkozy, who was a government minister at the time and a political rival of Villepin within their conservative UMP party. Sarkozy and other prominent figures were falsely accused of having secret bank accounts to hold bribes from a 1991 sale of frigates to Taiwan.

Under French law, preliminary charges mean there is strong evidence to suggest involvement in a crime. The filing gives the magistrate time to pursue a deeper probe that could lead a trial.

Villepin, once a rising star in France's conservative circles of power, denied wrongdoing in the case, which shook the government of former President Jacques Chirac.

"At no moment did I take part in any political maneuvering," he said after appearing before the judges.

The scandal began when a judge received a mysterious CD-ROM accusing Sarkozy and other top ministers of holding secret accounts in Luxembourg bank Clearstream. But investigators realized the scheme was a hoax and turned their attention to uncovering the culprits.

Villepin told the judges he need time to study the extensive case files, his attorneys said.

"He has never had access to the dossier before," said lawyer Olivier d'Antin. "He informed the judge that he was ready to respond to questions once he had knowledge of the dossier."

Villepin has said he acted "strictly in the framework" of his jobs as foreign minister and interior minister at the time of the scandal.

Earlier this year, investigators searched his home and office after the discovery of his name in computer files belonging to a Defense Ministry official, Gen. Philippe Rondot. Rondot wrote in his notes that two key players in the affair told him they acted on orders from Villepin.

Other prominent figures have been questioned in the case, including former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, defense minister at the time. Chirac has refused to be questioned in the affair, citing judicial immunity granted for acts during his presidential tenure.