Still France's darling, Chirac faces trial for graft
Jacques Chirac expects to go on trial Monday, the first former French president to face corruption charges, as alleged murky dealings in his office when he was mayor of Paris finally catch up with him.
But the whole proceeding could come to a halt once again, if a lawyer working for one of his co-defendants succeeds in getting a procedural element of the case referred upwards to France's constitutional court.
Now 78, Chirac has become France's most popular politician since leaving office in 2007, despite being accused of using city funds to pay ghost worker salaries to political allies while he was mayor between 1977 to 1995.
If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in jail and a fine of 150,000 euros (210,000 dollars) on charges including embezzlement and breach of trust.
But Jean-Yves Le Borgne, a lawyer working for one of Chirac's former chiefs of staff, argues a ruling allowing the trial to go ahead despite the period of time that has passed since the alleged crimes is unconstitutional.
Earlier, judges had merged two cases -- once begun by magistrates in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, and another in the city itself.
The Nanterre case began in 1995, and was permitted to investigate acts from 1992 onwards, but the Paris case did not begin until 1998. Le Borgne says this means the merged probe ought not therefore to look so far back.
Le Borgne insists his is a genuine claim, not a defensive manoeuvre, but if judges agree to refer the question to the constitutional court, the whole trial will stop for several months -- even before Chirac appears.
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 accuse magistrates of harbouring a hidden political agenda.
Despite being linked to a series of corruption scandals, Chirac has never been convicted and as president from 1995 to 2007 was immune from prosecution.
There have also been reports that Chirac's health has deteriorated -- perhaps even to the point where he would be able to avoid trial -- but in January his wife Bernadette denied he was suffering from Alzheimer's.
At the request of his lawyers, Chirac will not attend the first day of the trial, given over to procedural questions, but he is expected on Tuesday.
A comfortable chair has been provided along with a room where he can rest. The court is expected to be crowded, with over 100 media accredited.
The case 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 chiefs of staff and others accused either of having ghost jobs or benefiting from those of town hall employees.
Chirac's political career spanned over 40 years, during which time he acquired a reputation as a formidable and energetic political opponent.
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 his wife now live in a luxurious apartment overlooking the Seine and the Louvre, lent to them by the family of assassinated former Lebanese business tycoon and prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
© 2011 AFP