Chirac corruption trial to begin

4th March 2011, Comments 0 comments

Jacques Chirac is on Monday to become the first former French president to go before a judge when his month-long trial for alleged corruption during his time as mayor of Paris in the 1990s begins.

Chirac, 78, who has become France's most popular politician since leaving office in 2007, is accused of using public funds to pay ghost worker salaries to his political allies when he was mayor from 1977 to 1995.

If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in jail and a fine of 150,000 euros (200,000 dollars) on charges including embezzlement and breach of trust.

Chirac, best known internationally for his opposition to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, has denied any knowledge of corrupt payments and his lawyers have accused magistrates of political motives.

Despite being linked to a series of corruption scandals, Chirac has never been convicted and as president from 1995 to 2007 he was immune from prosecution.

Reports have swirled that Chirac's health has deteriorated, to the point that his wife Bernadette in January denied he was suffering from Alzheimer's.

At the request of his lawyers, Chirac will not attend the first day of the trial, to be given over to procedural questions, but he is expected to appear on Tuesday.

A comfortable chair has been provided along with a room where he can rest if needed. The courtroom is expected to be crowded out with over 100 media accredited.

The trial brings together two separate cases. The first involves seven alleged ghost jobs for which Chirac is charged with conflict of interest and the other 21 jobs for which Chirac is accused of embezzlement and abuse of trust.

Several people were convicted in connection with the case in 2004, including former prime minister and current Foreign Minister Alain Juppe who was found guilty of mishandling public funds.

Chirac says that contrary to accusations the employees were used to prepare the 1995 presidential election, which Chirac went on to win, they were all legitimate and "useful to the city of Paris."

Nine other people are going on trial alongside Chirac, including two former chief's of staff and others accused either of having ghost jobs or benefiting from town hall employees.

In September, Paris city council agreed to accept a payment of more than 2.2 million euros from Chirac and his right-wing UMP party, the heir to his RPR party, in exchange for dropping a civil suit against him.

Normally that would have mean that there would be no trial, but anti-corruption group Anticor lodged a legal challenge against the out-of-court settlement, calling for it to be annulled and for the civil suit to go ahead.

Without one, he would likely be acquitted as state prosecutors, who are ultimately under government authority, have called for charges to be dropped.

The court rejected a request by Chirac's lawyer Jean Veil for the trial to be put on hold and ruled that two separate sets of corruption charges against Chirac could be heard in a single trial.

Chirac's political career spanned over 40 years, during which time he acquired a reputation as a formidable and energetic political opponent but also a seducer.

His opponents say he is better at taking power than exercising it, while Chirac himself is perceived as being most at home when shaking hands and eating cheese at an agricultural show.

After losing presidential elections in 1981 and 1988, Chirac was finally elected to the top office in 1995 and again in 2002.

Chirac and Bernadette now live in a luxurious apartment overlooking the Seine, lent to them by the family of assassinated former Lebanese tycoon and prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

© 2011 AFP

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