Trial to open for 'medically unfit' ex-president Chirac

4th September 2011, Comments 0 comments

The first ever trial of a French ex-president opens Monday but the accused, Jacques Chirac, was unlikely to appear in court to answer corruption charges after doctors said he was medically unfit.

The 78-year-old right-winger, best known internationally for his opposition to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, has been linked to a series of corruption scandals but was never convicted.

Chirac, who became France's best loved politician after leaving office in 2007, is accused of using public funds to pay people working for his party ahead of his successful 1995 bid for the presidency.

If found guilty, he faces up to 10 years in jail and a fine of 150,000 euros ($214,000) on charges that include embezzlement and breach of trust during the years he served as mayor of Paris.

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.

He 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 him.

He avoided the dock in March when lawyers for a co-defendant won a postponement by arguing certain charges were unconstitutional. But the highest appeals court ruled the challenge over the statute of limitations was invalid.

It appeared that he was again going to avoid a court appearance after his lawyers said in a statement Saturday they had submitted a medical report to the presiding judge that said he could not attend.

"President Chirac indicated to the court his wish to see the trial proceed to its end and his willingness to assume his responsibilities, even though he is not entirely capable of taking part in the hearings," they said.

The neurological report drawn up at the request of his family concluded that Chirac was in "a vulnerable condition which will not allow him to answer questions about his past," Le Monde newspaper said on Saturday.

Judge Dominique Pauthe will Monday have to respond to the medical report when the case opens with a day that earmarked for procedural matters. His options include dropping the case, postponing it or seeking further medical opinion.

Chirac's son-in-law Frederic Salat-Baroux said Saturday that the ex-president's health "has been getting worse for several months" and he "no longer has the memory" to attend the court hearings.

At the start of the year his wife Bernadette denied that Chirac was suffering from Alzheimer's.

State prosecutors had called for the case to be dismissed, raising the likelihood that Chirac will avoid conviction if his case goes ahead.

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, who has also served two terms as prime minister and 18 years as mayor of Paris, paid more than half a million euros of this from his own pocket but did not acknowledge any wrongdoing.

Despite his legal problems, Chirac is much loved by the French who seem nostalgic for his warm manner and love of good food and beer, and his traditional style of statesmanship, which contrasts with the brash energy of his successor Nicolas Sarkozy.

© 2011 AFP

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