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Corruption trial set to begin for Chirac

Political corruption trial set to begin for Jacques Chirac considered to be first president of France to be indicted for alleged criminal offences.

Marseille, France// The past will finally catch up with Jacques Chirac when the larger-than-life former French president goes on trial Monday  in a political corruption scandal that has haunted him for more than a decade.

At a time when he may have hoped to be enjoying tranquil retirement after a lifetime in politics, Mr Chirac, 78, faces charges arising from investigations into fictitious appointments and the misuse of public funds during his 18-year spell as mayor of Paris.

Mr Chirac is thought to have become the first president of France to be indicted for alleged criminal offences when his immunity from prosecution ended in 2007, stepping down before the election that sent Nicolas Sarkozy to the Elysée.

In theory, he could - if convicted - go to jail, though any custodial sentence and, indeed, guilty verdict, would be the subject of protracted appeals.

The French media have speculated for months about the state of his health and whether increasing age and medical problems would make him unfit to appear in court.

But after one newspaper suggested earlier this year that the former president was suffering from Alzheimer's disease, his wife, Bernadette, reacted angrily, denouncing the report as false.

She said on French radio that her husband was determined to present himself at the proceedings and prove himself innocent of wrongdoing.

"He has always said he wants to be regarded as subject to the system of justice like anyone else," she said. "He should be treated no better, but also no worse, than any other."

Mr Chirac could still have to wait for the opportunity to plead his innocence. When the trial opens in the same Parisian courtroom where a revolutionary tribunal condemned the French queen Marie-Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI, in 1793, one of the former president's nine co-accused will submit a procedural challenge that could delay proceedings for months.

The prosecution concerns events at Paris City Hall in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Mr Chirac was building his power base as leader of his own Gaullist party, the Rassemblement pour la République (RPR), forerunner of Mr Sarkozy's present-day ruling UMP.

He has been linked to a number of cases of alleged corruption arising from that period. Several former associates - most notably Alain Juppé, later prime minister and now starting his second term as foreign minister - have stood trial and received suspended sentences for their parts in what occurred.

Staff numbers at City Hall rocketed under Mr Chirac's mayoral direction. Many whose names appeared on the payroll were from his political heartland, the south-western province of the Corrèze, and it has been alleged that the salaries of a number of entirely fictitious employees were diverted to party funds.

When details began to come to light in the late 1990s, by which time Mr Chirac was president, he was granted immunity on the ground that to testify on such matters would be incompatible with his official duties.

The whiff of corruption failed to stop Mr Chirac winning a second term in 2002, but he held his country's highest office in the knowledge that his protection would probably end as soon as he left office.

Mr Chirac has publicly maintained that he committed no offence in his appointment of staff, arguing that mayors at that time enjoyed substantial freedom to make such decisions.

In an article for the daily newspaper Le Monde, he admitted that he sometimes gave people jobs to help them through difficult times but insisted that he made no personal gain from any of his actions.

"Never were funds belonging to the city of Paris used for any other purpose than on behalf of Parisian men and women," he wrote. "Never was there personal enrichment. Never was there a 'system'. I wanted or authorised these recruitments because they were both legitimate and necessary."

Certainly, France operated during the period under scrutiny in a completely different - and, as viewed in 2011, unacceptable - political atmosphere. Politicians of the left as well as Mr Chirac's centre-right have been accused of misconduct ranging from demanding kickbacks for public contracts to the bugging of political opponents.

Mr Chirac ended his time at the Elysée as a deeply unpopular president, having proved incapable of keeping bold promises of reform and prone to capitulation at the least sign of protest on the streets.

He also attracted much derision from the political establishments of London and Washington, and set himself - unsuccessfully - against the march of "Anglo-Saxon" cultural dominance in the French-speaking world.

But throughout all his difficulties, he retained the affection of the French rural communities, as witnessed by the warm welcome he received at the recent Paris agricultural show. His rating in opinion polls has risen sharply since he left office.

Once Mr Chirac's trial gets under way at the Palais de Justice on the banks of the Seine, it is expected to last several weeks.

 

crandall@thenational.ae