French court clears way for Chirac graft trial
A court cleared the way on Friday for France's former leader Jacques Chirac to be tried for corruption, rejecting a challenge that had postponed the first ever trial of a French ex-president.
The popular politician, 78, who is accused of embezzling public funds as mayor of Paris in the 1990s, avoided the dock in March when lawyers for one of his co-defendants won a postponement on the second day.
They argued that certain charges were unconstitutional under the statute of limitations. The country's highest appeals court ruled on Friday however that this constitutional challenge was not valid.
"There were no grounds to refer these questions to the Constitutional Council," which would have ultimately ruled on the challenge, judges of the country's top appeals court said in a statement.
Chirac enjoyed immunity from prosecution as president from 1995 to 2007, but the case, which has already seen current Foreign Minister Alain Juppe convicted, has finally caught up with the former head of state.
He is accused of using public funds to pay people working for his party ahead of his successful 1995 election bid. He denies knowledge of illegal payments and his lawyers accuse magistrates of harbouring a political agenda.
Chirac, best known internationally for his opposition to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, has been linked to a series of corruption scandals but has never been convicted.
A court on March 8 suspended the trial so constitutional authorities could examine whether certain charges that date back nearly two decades were still admissible. The postponement drew criticism from anti-corruption campaigners.
The presiding judge in March proposed a hearing be scheduled for around June 20 to fix a new date and said the trial could resume from September 5.
Chirac is the first French former head of state to face criminal charges since the leader of the collaborationist wartime regime, Marshal Philippe Petain, was convicted of treason after World War II.
If found guilty, Chirac faces up to 10 years in jail and a fine of 150,000 euros ($210,000) on charges including embezzlement and breach of trust.
State prosecutors, who are under the hierarchical authority of the government, have called for the case to be dismissed, raising the likelihood that Chirac will avoid conviction.
Paris city hall last year dropped its civil charges against him in return for a payment of more than 2.2 million euros, from him and the right-wing UMP party.
Chirac paid more than half a million euros of this from his own pocket but did not acknowledge any wrongdoing.
Juppe was convicted in the same case in 2004, received a suspended jail term and was banned from holding public office for a year. President Nicolas Sarkozy named him foreign minister earlier this year.
There have been reports that Chirac's health has deteriorated -- perhaps even to the point where he could avoid trial.
In January his wife Bernadette Chirac denied media reports that he was suffering from Alzheimer's and insisted he would face up to his trial, though she admitted his health had declined.
© 2011 AFP