French ex-president Chirac faces September graft trial

20th June 2011, Comments 0 comments

France's former leader Jacques Chirac is to be tried in September for corruption relating to his time as Paris mayor in the 1990s, a judge said Monday, the first ever trial of a French ex-president.

Presiding judge Dominique Pauthe said the long-delayed trial of the popular politician, now aged 78, would take place in Paris from September 5 to 23.

Chirac, who is accused of embezzling public funds while mayor, avoided the dock in March when lawyers for one of his co-defendants won a postponement arguing that certain charges were unconstitutional.

The country's highest appeals court however ruled that the constitutional challenge over the statute of limitations was not valid.

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.

There has been much speculation about Chirac's health and his ability to take part in the trial.

"The president will certainly come to the first hearings, that's certain," one of Chirac's lawyers, Georges Kiejman, told journalists.

"When his presence is not necessary it's nevertheless obvious that he won't come."

Jean-Yves Le Borgne, who is representing one of Chirac's nine co-defendants, former cabinet chief Remy Chardon, and who tried to get the trial declared unconstitutional, heaped scorn on the decision.

"Once in a while there's something a little derisory about things that happened over 20 years ago being brought before justice, but that's the way it is," Le Borgne said.

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.

He 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 ($214,000) 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.

© 2011 AFP

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