Commentators spy a Chirac 'Watergate'

4th February 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Feb 4 (AFP) - European papers on Wednesday jumped on a scandal embroiling former French prime minister Alain Juppe, President Jacques Chirac's longtime ally who was disgraced by a graft conviction, saying a "Watergate a la francaise" was in the making.

PARIS, Feb 4 (AFP) - European papers on Wednesday jumped on a scandal embroiling former French prime minister Alain Juppe, President Jacques Chirac's longtime ally who was disgraced by a graft conviction, saying a "Watergate a la francaise" was in the making.

Papers across the continent saw Juppe's defiant televised refusal to quit politics late Tuesday as a temporary respite for the president, but warned pressure was mounting in what the conservative Danish paper Berlingske Tidende called "Chirac-gate".

"The political scandal dubbed Watergate a la francaise deepened last night", The Daily Telegraphy in London said.

Juppe's defiance "compounds the impression that the President has something to hide".

"The President's opponents and leading judicial figures say France is behaving like a banana republic in which politicians consider themselves above the law," it said.

Juppe, 58 - seen as Chirac's chosen heir in the next presidential race in 2007 though increasingly eclipsed by strong-willed law-and-order Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, 48 - was found guilty Friday of using Paris city funds to pay members of Chirac's party when Chirac was mayor of the capital in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Slapped with an 18-month suspended sentence and an automatic ban on holding public office for 10 years, Juppe retorted it was "too much" and vowed to stay in office pending an appeal, expected next autumn.

Juppe not only holds a seat in parliament but is mayor of Bordeaux, capital of France's key southwest wine region, and head of Chirac's ruling conservative Union for a Popular Maujority (UMP) party.

The president, his entourage, even his wife rushed to defend Juppe as "honest man", but The Times of London warned that Chirac "has been severely damaged by the sentencing last Friday of his chief lieutenant".

Even if Juppe is acquitted, "the heat will remain on M. Chirac over the corruption at the Paris city hall during his tenure as mayor," it said.A fighter, Chirac was tainted by but survived a 2000 bid by magistrates to query him about alleged kickbacks during his time as Paris mayor, sidestepping a probe via presidential immunity.

"The question now is how much longer Mr Chirac can remain unscathed," asked The Guardian in London, noting that the president has been named "in six of the 27 different corruption inquires" pending concerning the period when he was was over Paris city hall.

In Austria, the center-left Der Standard also said a "French Watergate was being dug up" while the independent Kurier saw Chirac as clearly behind Juppe's refusal to quit.

"If Juppe resigns he would leave the field wide open for Nicolas Sarkozy, Jacques Chirac's rival within the party," Kurier said.

The big Italian dailies said Juppe had no choice but to stay on and deflect blame from Chirac.

"His retreat would have had a devastating effect for Chirac, who has got the judges waiting for him when his mandate ends," said the left-wing La Repubblica.

"Jacques Chirac has won a few months," La Stampa in Turn said, with "his heir bound to take on the role of scapegoat for the system of illegal party financing".

French papers took a similar line, with the daily Le Parisien stating that "Chirac persuaded Juppe to stay." "Once more, Alain Juppe didn't know how to say no to Jacques Chirac," it said.

"The strategy of the Chirac-Juppe two-step aims to hold back Sarkozy's ardour," the left-wing Liberation paper wrote.

Even the pro-government Le Figaro daily saw Chirac's desperation to keep Juppe by his as a weakness, saying it showed he "has no other solution as a replacement".

The respected Swiss French daily Le Temps devoted two pages to the scandal, and said: "Behind the condemned man, Jacques Chirac".

It likened Juppe's conviction to a "judicial bomb in an already devasted political landscape" ahead of the 2007 presidential race.

In Barcelona, the conservative daily Vanguardia said "Chirac managed to keep Juppe from throwing in the sponge to win time to sort out a new party leadership".

In Norway, the Aftenposten daily said simply that Juppe's conviction "was a warning shot for President Jacques Chirac".

© AFP

                                                              Subject: France news

 

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