Chirac, on graft trial, France's most popular politician

4th September 2011, Comments 0 comments

Jacques Chirac's corruption trial -- opening Monday -- deals a body blow to the two-time French president, an ugly intrusion into the veteran leader's golden retirement from the political front line.

After 12 years as head of state, two terms as prime minister and 18 years as mayor of Paris, the 78-year-old Gaullist bowed out in 2007 after a political career that spanned half a century.

Graft allegations from his time as Paris mayor dogged Chirac's later years in office, when he was openly attacked as a "crook", and he handed power to Nicolas Sarkozy under a cloud of suspicion.

The veteran statesman settled into genteel semi-retirement as head of a foundation fighting global warming and poverty while his popularity among the French steadily grew, with polls showing he became their favourite politician.

For all his policy flip-flops on everything from the economy to Europe or the environment, many now choose to remember him as the leader who stood up to United States over the Iraq war.

The French also seem nostalgic for his warm manner and appetite for good food and beer, and his traditional style of statesmanship, which contrasts with the brash energy of his successor.

Chirac had long managed to keep the courts at arms length despite losing the immunity from prosecution that shielded him as head of state. But now the past has come back to haunt him.

He is to be tried on charges of using the city pay roll to pay salaries to aides who were in reality working for his right-wing political party during his long tenure as mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995.

But it was unclear whether he would attend the trial after his lawyers submitted a medical report to the court that said he was mentally unfit to take part. The presiding judge was expected to respond to the report on Monday.

Investigating magistrates opened an inquiry into Chirac's running of city hall in 1999 after receiving a complaint alleging widespread abuses, including graft, illegal party financing and destruction of evidence.

The prospect of Chirac in the dock may come as little surprise to the French public.

A generation of French voters people grew up on a drip feed of media revelations about the alleged excesses of Chirac and his wife while he wielded power from his base in city hall.

Corruption claims against Chirac were for some time a running joke on the country's top satirical television show, which at one period lampooned him as as a cape-wearing anti-hero: "SuperLiar".

One sketch cast Chirac and his wife Bernadette as a pair of geriatric gangsta rappers, wallowing in banknotes and thumbing their noses at the law while they lived the high life at taxpayers' expense.

Chirac in 2009 published a 500-page book of memorits tracing his childhood years in Correze, deep in rural France, and his extraordinary rise to become a pivotal figure of the Fifth Republic.

The book includes a candid admission that the years spent in pursuit of power meant that there was little time to spend with his children: his daughter Claude, who became an advisor, and Laurence, who has been battling severe anorexia and mental illness for more than 30 years.

Chirac has a third adopted Vietnamese daughter, Anh-Dao Traxel.

© 2011 AFP

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